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photo of President Poskanzer

State of the College 2009

September 25, 2009

In typical times, a visitor gazing at our campus would note the prominence of the Jacobsen and Haggerty buildings and of course the inspiring backdrop of Mohonk Mountain. But this summer and fall, a mammoth crane dominated the horizon, towering over the pit next to the Student Union. From that pit, steel beam by steel beam, a new mountain arose—consciously designed to echo the shape and significance of its more famous forbear.

This new structure—to be completed next spring—will pulsate with New Paltz's vitality. It will be our central gathering place. The ancient Greeks would have called such a site an agora, but our new landmark deserves a more fitting and distinctive name. So—at least until a donor asks us to name the building in honor of a gift!—I would call it the Aerie, after the mountaintop perch where hawks make their home. This edifice symbolizes both the College's enduring link to its geographic setting and our shared aspiration to reach bold new vistas.

New Paltz is well on its way to being a superb, highly selective, residential liberal arts college. There are wonderful private liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, but there is an opening for a small number of public colleges to emerge as powerful rivals, competing successfully both on quality and price. We intend to be one of those preeminent public institutions. We shall attract top-quality students who want a smaller, more personalized college experience, and faculty who want to teach and do scholarship in just such a setting. This is an important niche for us to fill.

We have set appropriately lofty goals to spur our climb to excellence. The eight points of our strategic vision lay out our priorities and clarify our choices about long-term investments and daily actions. We use this vision plan to measure our success.

It's my custom at the first faculty meeting each fall to take stock of our progress. While it's gratifying to celebrate what we've achieved together, this is also a time to speak honestly of how we can be even better and to set a shared course for the coming semesters. Today, I can report that we made noteworthy strides toward our vision this year despite significant budget challenges.

Let's take each vision point in turn, highlighting the most important milestones. We need to continue raising the academic quality and selectivity of our students. In 2009, thanks to Dean Lisa Jones and her Admissions team, we outstripped all previous efforts and enrolled our best entering class ever. For many years now we've resisted growing our undergraduate enrollment. Instead, as New Paltz has become extraordinarily popular, we have ratcheted up our admissions standards. But this year, a large cohort of New York State high school graduates and a reeling economy worked to our advantage in an unprecedented way. We saw this wave coming—over 19,000 freshman and transfer applications—and we rode it beautifully, accepting just 34% of freshman and 36% of transfer applicants. We avoided a disruptively-large freshman cohort like we had in 2008. The incoming class is exactly the size we wanted—1,100 freshmen and 675 transfers.

Our recruitment goals include preserving our socio-economic, ethnic, geographic and intellectual diversity. Other campuses envy New Paltz's record of graduating students from traditionally-underrepresented populations. Of first-year students reporting their ethnicity, one quarter come from such groups. Our international students comprise another important 3% of our undergraduates. But as a public university, our primary mission is to serve the citizens of New York. We continue to do this well, drawing 93% of our students from across the Empire State.

Our ability to be very choosy about whom we admit is reflected in the academic quality of our new arrivals. Our first-year students had a mean high school average of 91 and mean SAT verbal and math scores of 1172, up from 1158 last year. These students are serious about learning, as evidenced by the courses they took in high school and the quality of their writing samples. Therefore, it's appropriate to raise our expectations in the classroom.

As New Paltz grows stronger, old benchmarks become less meaningful, such as having 100% of our regularly-admitted freshmen from the top two SUNY quality groups. Instead, we focus on meeting higher standards. Look at the remarkable shift over the last decade in entering student quality. This fall, freshmen in the top SUNY selectivity group alone made up over 42% of the class. In 2002, the comparable number was 20%—and that was a record high back then! Note as well how our student profile has entirely shifted out of the lower, weaker categories.

The admissions cycle is again in full swing, and I know that with invaluable outreach from faculty, we can recruit the best possible class of another 1,100 freshmen and 650 transfers.

Our second goal is to hire and retain faculty who are serious about both their scholarship and teaching.

Adding full-time, tenure-track faculty is our number one priority. Nothing builds quality so directly. So we have continued to hire new colleagues in a savage budget year even while many of our sister SUNY campuses imposed hiring freezes. We have moved purposefully to fill scholarly gaps rather than let the vagaries of who departs rip holes in our intellectual profile. Fourteen new faculty bring our full-time ranks to 331—within a handful of the 336 reported last fall. Just as significant, we have already launched searches for another 14 faculty lines for fall 2010. This is cause for confidence.

You'll meet your new colleagues in a few minutes. This is an exceptional group, with degrees and teaching experience from world-class Ph.D. programs at places like Harvard, Columbia, the University of Texas, and the University of Amsterdam. Among our new faces are our Provost, Don Christian, and the more familiar visage of our Dean of Fine and Performing Arts, Mary Hafeli, who has returned home.

By adding full-time professors, targeting those hires in areas with heavy adjunct use, keeping a tighter rein on course offerings, and deploying our faculty where they are most needed, we have driven down the percentage of courses taught by part-time instructors. Bucking national trends, we are doing what is pedagogically wise instead of what's financially appealing. A decade ago, almost half of our courses were taught by adjuncts. That number fell to 37% by 2006, to 34% by 2007, and all the way to 30.5% in 2008. While we're within spittin' distance of our long-term goal of keeping this figure below 30%, it will be hard right now to hold our ground with budgetary limits on new hires. However, we cannot lose sight of our objective.

As a faculty, we unabashedly hold ourselves to rigorous standards. Getting hired and earning tenure here is a signal achievement. Only a talented and committed person can teach our substantial load and be a good campus citizen while contributing to one's discipline. The volume of externally-sponsored research is a key barometer of our faculty's success at scholarship. In 2009, the number of grant applications by New Paltz faculty jumped 19% and grant funds actually awarded to our campus climbed to $5.1 million, a 35% increase from the previous year.

On to our third goal.

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

Every 10 years, the College must be reaccredited by the Middle States Association—a process that involves an honest self-examination and an external validation of how well we actually do what we say we do.

New Paltz's turn comes again in the spring of 2011. Our powerhouse reaccreditation team is led by Professor of Geography Linda Greenow and Associate Provost Laurel Garrick Duhaney, and includes more than 100 faculty, staff and students on 14 working groups. As the team gathers data and drafts a self-study, it will need to draw upon our collective knowledge and advice.

The accreditors are certain to ask: "How does New Paltz ensure that students graduate on time?" Like anxious parents and cost-conscious legislators, they will look first to our retention and graduation rates.

And they will find much to like. First-year retention for the fall 2007 cohort (the percentage of freshmen returning for their sophomore year) was a strong 84%, which compares very favorably to national and SUNY averages.

However, students don't come to college just to stay in college. They aspire to earn a degree. And with rising student quality and heightened attention to meeting student needs, New Paltz's graduation rates have been improving.

  • Our latest four-year graduation rate is 42.8%;
  • Our latest five-year graduation rate is 64.3%, and
  • Our latest six-year graduation rate is 69.1%.

I honor these achievements, but we can surpass them. I shall return to this topic when I talk about our goals for the coming year.

As the self-study team and accreditors probe our educational success, their attention will surely turn to the vitality and richness of our curriculum. The range of new programs and courses we offer and regular innovations in teaching reflect our quality. But I have heard from many of you that key components of our curriculum call for faculty attention.

For instance, it is time to re-examine our General Education program. Are New Paltz students sufficiently grounded in the liberal arts? Are they developing intellectual depth and curiosity? Gaining a sophisticated understanding of the diversity and complexity of the world? Drawing connections between their GE courses and their eventual majors? The answers to these questions should shape our General Education for the next decade. Likewise, Provost Christian is eager for us to consider how honors experiences could be a more powerful tool in recruiting and producing remarkable New Paltz graduates. Change in both of these domains should be purposeful; curricula are, after all, careful selections from centuries of accumulated and shared knowledge. But curricula can quickly ossify.

A last critical ingredient in preparing students for their careers and lives is top-flight educational facilities. There is excellent news here, as a host of projects are underway to create new teaching and laboratory space and refurbish older buildings. Odd as it may seem, the State University's capital construction budget is completely separate from its budget for operating expenses and salaries. These pools are not interchangeable. And while we have all bemoaned the cuts to SUNY's operating funds, in fairness we must thank the State for sustaining its multi-year investment in the University's physical plant. We are in the midst of the biggest construction boom on our campus in decades; with approximately $300 million in projects slated for the next five years.

What will all these dollars buy? For starters, a totally renovated Old Main. The gut rehabilitation of the once and future home of the School of Education is moving steadily toward completion in 2011.

At the corner of Plattekill Avenue and South Manheim Boulevard, a glorious new Science Building will replace a barren parking lot. Design has begun on this structure that will house Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Geology and possibly other units. It will feature interdisciplinary teaching labs and spaces to facilitate joint faculty-student research.

We shall also reorganize space and functions within the current building envelope of the Sojourner Truth Library, to make our collections—especially electronic databases—more accessible. An architect has been chosen, and construction should begin in summer 2011. To minimize disruption of services, this work will be done in phases.

Finally, the Wooster Building will be overhauled. This project presents an exciting opportunity to redeploy vacant space in the heart of campus. A faculty/staff planning group will offer counsel on the best use of this precious square footage. Our Landscape Master Plan calls for razing the ugly modular building in front of Bouton Hall to create a gracious "Arts & Sciences Quad." We can do this if we meet anticipated faculty office needs in Old Main, the new Science Building and the renovated Wooster. Another obvious notion is a dining facility to serve the north end of campus. Imagine how this will be appreciated by graduate students taking evening classes!

As you can see, construction fencing and backhoes will be campus fixtures for the next few years.

On to the next goal from our vision plan.

We want to link student intellectual growth with faculty scholarship.

Connections between undergraduate learning and faculty research are an important part of New Paltz's niche. I would even say they should be a defining feature of the College. We want our students to forge lasting relationships with faculty mentors, and a great way to accomplish this is through exhibitions, recitals, practica, internships—and especially research experiences. We have settled on a mechanism to count students engaged in program-related research and independent study.

I'm thrilled that the number of students working on faculty-supervised projects is climbing. Forty-one undergraduates from 17 different departments and programs received research funding last year, up from 34 spread over 11 departments in the previous year. These students aren't only fledgling scientists; Art and History majors won awards, too. A record 68 students presented at the Research Symposium, many of whom also travelled to conferences to share their work.

Because collaborative faculty/student research is one of our proudest achievements, we showcased such activity to Chancellor Nancy Zimpher when she visited campus in June. She was suitably impressed; indeed, New Paltz planted the seed for a SUNY-wide exhibition of undergraduate research.

How else to gauge our success in fostering students' intellectual maturity? As undergraduate research grows, more New Paltz graduates will be competitive at strong master's and Ph.D. programs and professional schools. According to the 2009 senior survey, 32% of our graduates plan to pursue an advanced degree. Sharing these results annually—and working together to drive them up!—will help us recruit, retain and graduate even stronger students.

Our fifth objective is that our residential character will reinforce our educational goals.

Therefore, we want most of our undergraduate students to live on campus and many faculty and staff living close to campus. We wisely promise that students who want to can keep living on campus, and more of them choose to do so for all four years. So even though we added new residence halls in 2001 and 2004, all 13 halls are now chock-full. This means we cannot offer housing to transfer students, many of whom would benefit from deeper engagement in campus life. And each fall we are forced to squeeze many freshmen into triple rooms, detracting from the quality of their living/learning experience. The solution is clear: another undergraduate residence hall, most likely located across Hawk Drive from Lenape Hall. But before we break ground, we must ensure that building revenues will cover the costs of construction and maintenance. In the meantime, we continue to refurbish our older halls as their stand-alone finances permit.

We are also in the planning stages of developing faculty, staff and apartment-style student housing on our 40 acres contiguous to the southern end of campus. In the near future, I am likely to ask for your help in demonstrating the broad College community support I know exists for this project.

Just living on or near campus is not enough to capture the full benefits of a residential college. We want students to take advantage of the cultural, athletic, literary, artistic—and yes, even purely social—opportunities to be found here. I've heard a growing sentiment that New Paltz would benefit from a further infusion of "school spirit." Such institutional excitement is growing. Last year's freshmen were wonderfully engaged—intramural dodge ball leagues and rock-climbing lessons were packed; suite mates flocked to Foundation art shows; spontaneous celebrations erupted after the Presidential election. While it's still early in the semester, we track first-year students who participate in campus activities—and they are turning out in numbers that make those now-sophomores look like bored slackers! My favorite indicator of our rising spirit is our baseball team—legendary for its enthusiastic support of every other athletic squad at the College. In all seriousness, while we can chuckle about collegiate excess—and while I'm not trying to turn New Paltz into some rah-rah caricature—a measure of justifiable pride in our College is healthy and should be encouraged.

One last point about the ever-improving appearance of our campus. Next summer, as part of our Landscape Master Plan, we will begin tearing up the crumbling Concourse alongside the Lecture Center, Humanities and Coykendall, to replace it with a brick-paved, tree-lined walkway. Hasbrouck Quad will get the same treatment. Coming in 2011 will be Mohonk Walk, a major East—West pedestrian path extending from Manheim Boulevard all the way to van den Berg Hall.

Our sixth goal is to meet student needs. Let me offer an anecdote to illustrate what this means.

At the end of the first day of classes, as I walked back to the Haggerty Building, I bumped into a student named Chris Dayton who needed help getting his loan refund so he could buy his textbooks. We entered the building at 6 p.m. He wasn't sure where to go, so I took him to Financial Aid on the 6th floor. We knocked on the door, and I headed upstairs. Dan Sistarenik and Nancy Mason didn't say "We're closed, come back tomorrow." Instead, they brought Chris into the office despite the hour, listened to his story, and sprung into action. It turned out that the first step in solving his problem involved crediting his balance in Student Accounts. So they called up that office, where Meredith Van Etten and Val Lloyd waited to assist Chris. Then they called Nancy Richardson at the ID/Meal Plan Office to say they were sending Chris over to get Hawk dollars added to his card. Ten minutes later, he was able to purchase his books and get something to eat on campus. Three different offices stepped up smartly to meet a student's legitimate need, each doing its proper job in turn and then paving his way to the next unit that would help him. And all of this occurred after our extended opening week office hours! This is exactly the kind of service that builds student loyalty; all academic and support units on campus should strive for the same level of attention and care.

Speaking of student satisfaction, according to the 2009 SUNY-wide survey, New Paltz students are considerably more pleased about academic advising and career services—two of our soft spots from the same survey back in 2006. Treating those results as a wakeup call, we added three more academic counselors, focused Advising on General Education and graduation requirements, and moved the unit to a more convenient location in Wooster. We used data to make needed changes, are monitoring the results, and are seeing a positive impact. This is a superb model of assessment.

Likewise, we can demonstrate the wisdom of having Career Resources concentrate on helping students land good internships and jobs and of moving that office to a heavily trafficked location in Humanities. Student users have jumped by 57% and the number of employer visits to campus is up 40%.

Our seventh goal . . .

We are committed to addressing regional economic and schooling needs.

Seven community colleges are spokes to New Paltz's hub in an educational network that serves the Hudson Valley. We meet an important local need by accepting substantial numbers of undergraduates who transfer here. While it's harder for all applicants to get into New Paltz than it used to be, complaints have dried up about differences in classroom performance between freshmen and transfers. Our transfer students do very well, and we are proud to have them.

Our graduate programs sustain the region's workforce. We want more New Paltz-trained teachers, engineers, artists and entrepreneurs to live and pay taxes—and support SUNY—right in our neighborhood. The Graduate School plans to bolster enrollments by making student recruitment, acceptances and guidance for orientation available online. This not only saves costs, but accommodates the lifestyle of busy adults. In collaboration with the Deans, Regional Education is developing new certificate programs that provide an easy entry point for graduate students and an incentive for them to continue into degree programs. Because it's important to measure our success, Institutional Research is piloting surveys asking both local employers and their alumni employees how well prepared New Paltz graduates were for their jobs.

Finally, we want to be a cultural and intellectual focal point for the Hudson Valley.

Our new Distinguished Speakers Series has already brought us humorist Dave Barry and Newsweek's Jonathan Alter; Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising political star, will be here Thursday. Next spring, author Tobias Wolff will grace our campus. His novel "Old School" was the Composition Program's reading selection for incoming students. As the Valley's public college, we are ideally suited to provide such illumination and entertainment to local audiences. I look forward to a steady stream of writers, scientists, artists and public figures on campus.

Our general interest academic programs also provide stimulating intellectual fare. For instance, Lou Roper of our History department is organizing an international symposium this weekend on "Henry Hudson, New Netherland, and Atlantic History," timed to coincide with other Quadricentennial events like our Hudson River paintings show. And our Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) is producing thoughtful studies—typically co-authored by student researchers. CRREO has revealed inequitable tax burdens across Ulster County and proved that collaboration among counties would obviate the need to build more jails.

This tour d'horizon affirms that we are steadily advancing toward our goals—and should inspire confidence in the importance and wisdom of those objectives.

Before I speak about some critical tasks for the coming year, I want to make some observations about the College's budget and its underlying economy. Last year was brutal financially; we lost over 20% of our direct state support. It was especially disheartening that New York's government seized almost all of the tuition increase that should have filled this gap.

We cut $6 million from our base operating budget. To do this, we identified new revenue sources, raised some fees, reduced our utility and supply costs, eliminated some positions, left other jobs vacant, mothballed some graduate programs—and, most prominently, decided to phase out our Nursing Program. We also dug into our reserves to buy the time to make careful choices and to implement actions that take several years before we can fully realize their savings. These decisions were painful, but they were necessary and they were correct. I'm extremely proud of the way we came together as a community with good ideas, a fair, open and consultative process, and wise actions that preserve our core academic strengths and allow us to focus on what we do best.

Nevertheless, as we continue implementing the budget reduction plan we adopted last spring, we shall have to change some behaviors. Our plan includes targets for energy savings. Now we must literally turn off lights and computers when they are not in use. Our plan calls for voluntary salary reductions and a 90-day hiring freeze on all administrative openings. Now we must actually realize those savings. We slashed the budget for printing. Now we must produce fewer publications. We suspended admission to some graduate programs in education. Now faculty, Deans and the Provost must retool those programs to attract robust enrollments. All of us can—and I know will—help us be prudent stewards of our resources.

What lies ahead? Reading Albany tea leaves is a risky venture, but I can offer some local reassurance. The cuts we made last spring anticipated further cuts to SUNY and to New Paltz—cuts that many signs indicate are still coming. If these additional cuts are not as severe as expected, the College will be in the enviable position of hiring more full-time faculty, consistent with our goals. If the next round of cuts is even deeper than we've planned for, we'll make further adjustments, using the same consultative process that has served us so well. Moreover, we still maintain meaningful reserves that can provide some one-time financial cushions.

It's crystal clear that the College's long-term stability and independence rest on private fundraising rather than unrealistic hopes of growing State appropriations. One of my personal goals this year is to build senior leadership support for fund raising, and to spend more time with potential donors. In coming months, Deans and Vice Presidents will seek your best thinking on how to enhance the New Paltz student experience. Ideas that transform lives will resonate with donors. Several SUNY peers and many public institutions (including former teachers' colleges) generate significant gifts from alumni and friends; we must do likewise.

The Next Stage of the Climb

In mountaineering, each successive challenge in an ascent is called a stage. At this juncture in New Paltz's climb, the next stage we must surmount is how to increase our graduation rates. Although our rates are rising, they are not yet where we need them to be.

We lag behind our aspirational peers. The College of New Jersey, another highly-selective public college, has a four-year graduation rate of 68%, compared to our 43%. Their six-year rate is 85%; ours is 69. In our own SUNY backyard, Geneseo and Binghamton put us to shame. What are these schools doing, what assets do they have, that allow them to graduate so many more of their students on time?

Admittedly, this is not just New Paltz's problem. Persistently low graduation rates are a national issue. This week, millions of readers are rushing out to buy the latest Dan Brown thriller. But the book that tops my reading list is Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities. This volume tracks in detail the entering 1999 class across the public university systems of Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Less than 40% of those entering freshmen graduated in four years. Even if these numbers miss students who transfer out and finish somewhere else, they are still disturbing. Public institutions enroll the bulk of the nation's college students. They play a pivotal role in social mobility. If large numbers of students aren't graduating in a timely fashion—and if those low rates are exacerbated by differences in socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity—the promise of a better life through higher education is too often illusory.

High graduation rates are consistent with students', parents' and the public's legitimate expectations. They are a hallmark of institutional quality. And undeniably, raising graduation rates is a proper focus in this struggling economy, where every dollar spent on tuition counts. Therefore, our call to action this year is to develop a comprehensive plan to raise our graduation rates, especially the four-year rate that is the proper benchmark for students of New Paltz's caliber.

Campus precedent tells us we can succeed at such a collective effort. A decade ago, we tackled our low retention rates, driving and keeping them up a good 10 percentage points. It's time to make the same kind of concerted push to lift our even more important graduation figures. I've asked Don Christian to lead this initiative, in consultation with deans, faculty and leaders of student support units.

Solving this puzzle is sure to involve many complicated pieces, including:

  • Which courses we offer and when;
  • Whether graduation rates should differ substantially across majors or schools;
  • How advisors can keep students on track even as their academic interests evolve;
  • How to cut through red tape on campus; and
  • Whether summer session could expand the envelope for student progress.

Our vision plan already recognizes the intellectual merit of collaborative student/faculty research. Crossing the Finish Line shows that the close ties engendered by such research lead to higher graduation rates, buttressing the case for our initiative. This book and other studies also demonstrate that particular student experiences, living on campus, doing internships, and participating in strong leadership development and honors programs bind undergraduates to their home institutions with similar positive results. What are the implications of this research for New Paltz's housing, academic and co-curricular offerings?

To raise our graduation rates, we'll draw on the insights of all individuals and offices whose work affects students' smooth progress to a degree. Let's seize opportunities in department or committee meetings to think about the interactions we have with students that might impact their success. The core challenge is to create and reinforce a campus culture where students expect to be "Through the Door in Four!"

Obviously, we will not reach our graduation rate "summit" instantaneously, but I expect a completed plan by the end of this academic year and a significant reduction of the gap between New Paltz and Geneseo within the next five years.

We have all witnessed how the College's academic quality—and its reputation—are steadily growing, for all the right reasons. Fortunately, however, one of our best traits is a restless refusal to get too comfortable. We will not be thwarted in our climb to higher quality and prominence.

Let me close by reiterating some of our critical tasks for the coming year. We must:

  • Recruit another exceptionally strong class, similar in size to this year's cohort;
  • Examine our strengths and weaknesses through a candid reaccreditation self-study, and use rigorous metrics to measure our progress toward our vision;
  • Continue to manage our budget and resources so we are poised for greater success when the recession ends;
  • Enhance our fundraising capacity—and results;
  • Craft a comprehensive plan to raise our graduation rates; and
  • Strive, as always, to give students the best residential liberal arts experience we can.

May we ascend to new heights in our individual and shared endeavors. Thank you.

Steven G. Poskanzer

On Campus at SUNY New Paltz TV Show previewing the State of the College 2009