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Presidential Reports and Communications

President’s Report to Academic and Professional Faculty
May 2, 2014

With the shifts in the April schedule of faculty meetings and the focus on the liberal education discussions, I did not distribute a report last month; this is a combined April-May report and will be my final report for this academic year.  I know that this is perhaps the busiest time for faculty, and I thank you for taking time to read this report. 

I am impressed throughout the year by the dedication, hard work, and creativity of the members of our campus community.  As we approach Commencement, those achievements come into sharp focus.  Thanks to each of you for creating the many high-quality experiences for our students that are at the heart of our institutional mission.  I greatly appreciate your work and contributions.

Campus gun incident and Village shooting fatality.  Understandably, the two recent gun incidents shook the sense of safety we have as members of the New Paltz community.  While even a single firearm-related act is one too many, we may take some solace that shots have not been fired on the campus since 2004, and before that since the early-mid 1990s.  The last time a firearm was criminally discharged in the Village was about a decade ago.  The campus and New Paltz are extremely safe, and our campus’s federal Clery statistics support that conclusion.  We are committed to maintaining a safe learning and working environment for our students and employees. 

As is our practice, we always evaluate our responses to incidents such as these. In these two instances, we remain confident that our fundamental decisions and actions were correct and appropriate.  In the campus incident, a Brooklyn man visiting a student aimed a handgun at two students and pulled the trigger twice; the firearm did not discharge.  In less than five minutes after the incidents were reported to UPD, University Police Department (UPD) officers apprehended the suspect and recovered the firearm.  The quick action by residence hall staff and UPD officers negated any threat to others and obviated the need for a further alert. A student has been disciplined appropriately, with immediate consequences, related to this visitor gaining access to a campus residence hall. 

The second incident occurred off campus. University Police officers were intimately involved from the beginning, keeping in mind the safety of our students, faculty and staff. The town police and the State Police were the lead agencies, therefore they controlled the release of information. In the judgment of all law enforcement agencies involved, there was no credible information or evidence that the suspect was a danger or threat to the New Paltz community, including the campus community.  We shared information about the incident with the campus community once it was gathered and the agencies with jurisdiction were able to share it.  The federal Clery Act, by which we are bound and that guides our actions, does not mandate an alert in such an instance.  We believe that the NPAlert is primarily an emergency notification system; we use it judiciously so that it does not lose its efficacy as an emergency tool. We also recognize that it is an effective and immediate way to reach our students and employees.  We used our professional judgment to employ the emergency notification system later that morning because the shooter was not in custody and we were aware that students and employees may not have seen earlier emails on a Sunday/holiday.

We have received feedback that we did not share enough information, or did not share it soon enough.  We also heard concerns that we shared too much information about these incidents, elevating their profile and creating unnecessary anxiety.  Some parents were upset with how we handled these incidents, while other parents called to commend the way we communicated about these incidents.  Clearly, views on communication and messaging about incidents like these differ.  Our actions and judgments in these instances are based on extensive law enforcement experience and best practices. I hope the above information helps you understand the basis for our decisions, and that you will use these insights in your conversations with students about these incidents.

Commencement Speaker/Honorary Degree Recipient.  New Paltz alumnus Paul Huth (BS 1972, MS 1979) will be this year’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient.  Paul has been instrumental in the Mohonk Preserve eight-decade-long ecosystem research program for 40 years, first as an assistant to founder Dan Smiley, then as director of the program for 16 years, and as director of research emeritus since 2011.  He has published more than 100 articles in local and national professional scientific journals, and has had major impact on the ecological research and scholarship of many other investigators.  His honors and recognitions include the Distinguished Environmental Achievement Award from Mohonk Consultations for “leading stewardship, conservation and collaborative research for the Shawangunk Mountains and beyond (2013)”; and the John Campanius Holm Award from the National Weather Service for “remarkably accurate daily weather records that span 32 years [that] are a valuable resource to the Nation's climate program."  The long-term record of weather data and associated phenology data and studies that Paul has either led or been part of are among the most remarkable long-term ecological and climate data in North America. 

Paul identifies the “very talented and giving faculty” at New Paltz as a prime influence on his “degree and education.”  He stated, “You don’t know when you’re going through college that there are individuals who, because of their insight and guidance, change the direction of your life. We might not know who these people are until we’re in our career, in our 40s or 50s. You think back about that one professor who said, “Why don’t you come take that course with me?” And because of that little guidance, it changes your whole life and opens up a new world. I’ve had a wonderful career, and I can’t say it was because of me, as much as the people around me allowing me to take the opportunity to work with them. It was the kindness of others.” 

Paul’s extensive work and interaction with New Paltz students and faculty over many years exemplifies the longstanding (and growing) relationship between the Mohonk Preserve and the College.  Along with his alumni status, his work also fits fully the Board of Trustees requirement that honorary degree recipients have a strong relationship to the institution. You may learn more about Paul and his career here, and hear him speak about connections between the Preserve and the College and his educational perspectives here.  It is particularly fitting that Paul is our commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient in the year that the College, the Mohonk Preserve, and another partner organization (The Wallkill Valley Land Trust) are collaborating to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Chancellor’s Awards. I am pleased to announce the following Chancellor’s Award recipients, and ask that you join me in congratulating these colleagues for this recognition of their exceptional contributions:

  • Joan Barker, Adjunct Faculty, Art, Excellence in Adjunct Teaching (announced previously)
  • Karen Bell, Associate Dean, School of Education, Excellence in Professional Service
  • Sue Books, Professor, Secondary Education, Excellence in Teaching
  • Paul Chauvet, Senior Linux and UNIX Systems Administrator, Computer Services, Excellence in Professional Service
  • David Hobby, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Excellence in Faculty Service
  • Mary Kastner, Director of Design, Print and Mail Services, Office of Communication and Marketing, Excellence in Professional Service
  • John Ruger, Plumber and Steamfitter, Facilities Maintenance, Excellence in Classified Service

We will now formally present these awards at the first faculty meeting and the first classified staff gathering in the fall, rather than at spring commencement.  This will help streamline our commencement ceremony.  But more importantly, recognizing and celebrating the award recipients with colleagues – those who can best appreciate the significance of these awards and their underlying achievements – seems much more appropriate.     

Strategic Plan. The April 21 Administrative Council meeting, organized and led by the Strategic Planning Council  was devoted entirely to roundtable small-group discussion about current departmental efforts that support the strategic plan and about future collaborative opportunities that may warrant reallocation of resources to pursue.  Many attendees commented about how much they learned – and perhaps how little they knew – about strategic plan-focused efforts in other units and departments.  Many also were surprised at how many colleagues they did not know!  There is excitement and interest in collaboration with other units, while it is also clear that increased knowledge of the work of other units is needed to spark creative thinking about future collaborative possibilities.  These observations speak to the continuing importance of internal marketing and communication and of creating more opportunities like this to build community – in and of themselves goals of the plan. To that end, I hope you are reading and enjoying the news digest from the Office of Communication and Marketing that arrives in your inbox each Friday and visiting the college’s news hub (click here). This compilation of stories from across campus units should help to educate you about faculty, staff, student, and alumni activities.

We also heard consistent interest and enthusiasm about being more involved in developing alumni relationships, which is heartening as we build more campus-wide participation in this top priority of our strategic plan.

Based on the positive impact of this discussion, the Strategic Planning Council will organize further activities like this, including broad-based conversations to educate ourselves about each other and campus-wide strategic planning efforts.  Other discussions may focus on particular issues:  specific examples and ideas for engaging alumni, in coordination with Alumni Relations staff; ideas for collaboration and overcoming challenges to collaboration; increasing the understanding of particular groups of employees about how they and their work fit into the plan. Thank you to the Student Affairs staff who brought their programming expertise to this important exercise.

Some departments and units have begun working on the departmental “brag sheets” we are developing for internal communication and external marketing and communication, including student recruitment.  Office of Communication and Marketing staff have been developing more extensive guidelines and suggested formats for this information, and recently shared these with chairs and directors to outline the support that the office can provide for this important effort. 

My Participation in White House Event To Protect Students from Sexual Assault.  I was one of only a handful of invited college presidents at a White House event on Tuesday, April 29, highlighting the increasing concern about and attention given to sexual assault and sexual violence on college and university campuses, and outlining new federal initiatives.

This event was organized by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Vice President Joe Biden served as the main speaker on these topics. Others present included higher education representatives, leadership of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), Task Force members and White House staff, Cabinet members, several senators, including United States Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand, victim advocacy groups, and students.

Preparing for and participating in this event reinforced for me the tremendous work that SUNY New Paltz has done and is doing to support victims, provide clear and equitable processes, and broadly educate and train members of our community to prevent sexual violence on our campus and in our community.  Most of you are aware that our campus recently underwent an extensive Office of Civil Rights (OCR) review of our policies and practices as part of a more extensive audit of the entire SUNY system.  The OCR review of 5 years of New Paltz records did not find a single case of sexual assault or sexual violence that required further inquiry, or that was not handled according to OCR best practices and standards. Our educational and training efforts include elements like risk and risk mitigation, misperceptions, and bystander education (in our “Step Up New Paltz” program).  Our model collaborations with New Paltz tavern owners are aimed at reducing excessive alcohol consumption, a clear factor in sexual assault and violence on college campuses. 

The newly announced federal standards include new initiatives like an annual anonymous survey to determine the frequency of sexual assaults.  We and other colleges and universities are still evaluating the new federal standards and a 53-page letter also released this week by the OCR to help campuses better understand implementation of OCR policies. Our policies and practices are fully aligned with federal expectations. 

We should all be very proud of this record of excellent work, while we must also recognize the need for continuing improvement in this critical element of our campus climate and culture.  This is an opportunity to remind everyone of our legal responsibility under state and federal law to report incidents of sexual assault shared by students to Tanhena Pachecho-Dunn, Title IX coordinator. 

Other Washington Activities.  The White House event coincided with several long-scheduled activities in Washington.  Vice President Erica Marks and I met with alumni and prospective donors, including a very engaging “conversation with the president” with about 20 alumni Monday evening, joined at that event by Barbara Caldwell of the Development Office and Professor Ellen Konowitz of Art History.  These alumni spoke with pride about their New Paltz experiences, and clearly want to be involved with the College and our students in ways that we certainly will follow up on. 

As part of SUNY system federal relations efforts, Shelly Wright (AVP, Chief of Staff, Government Relations Officer), Richard Winters (Community and Government Relations Associate), and I met with members of Congress and Congressional staff to convey our support for key elements of the SUNY federal legislative agenda that matter most to New Paltz, share our work on sexual assault/violence prevention and management (this issue has attracted deep Congressional interest), and keep New Paltz “on the radar screen” of our legislators and their staff.  That includes offering to host their events on the campus, and reminding them of the faculty expertise available on key current topics. We attended several SUNY sessions with legislative leaders, including Senators Gillibrand and Schumer, and policy analysts from several major higher education organizations to learn about their higher education priorities (hint: affordability, access, outcomes). 

During my meeting with Congressman Chris Gibson, I thanked him for his great involvement on the board of our Institute for Disaster Mental Health (including presenting at last week’s excellent conference on crisis communication that drew hundreds of regional community emergency responders, students, staff and members of the helping professions as well as the Commissioner of the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, Jerome Hauer) and updated him on campus initiatives, including the great website, “Tick Talk, An Investigative Project on Lyme Disease,” put together by our students and Ottaway Professor Sonia Shah this spring. The issue of Lyme disease is a topic of great interest to the Congressman.

Construction Updates.  While we await final confirmation, we received word last Friday of progress on the contracting/documentation issues that have put a hold on the new science building project.  We are hopeful that construction will resume very soon.  Renovation of LeFevre Hall is ahead of schedule, on track for occupancy before move-in day this fall.  Construction of the new residence hall is progressing well, and we will be housing students there at the start of the 2015-16 academic year as planned.  I had a recent inside look at Wooster (note: no longer Wooster “Science”), and it is an unbelievable transformation -- great spaces, new sight lines, and a new connectivity between the Old Main Quad and the “arts and sciences” quad to the south.  The new facilities for anthropology, psychology, engineering labs, several student service functions, and food service will be tremendous assets to campus life and academic programming.

I remind everyone that these projects are financed by long-term bonds, funding that is not interchangeable with operational monies used to hire new faculty and staff, purchase supplies, fund travel, or pay utility costs.

Budget and Enrollment Update.  We do not have a clear sense of next year’s budget as final details are being worked out at the state and SUNY levels.  Our best judgment is to plan for an economy next year that is essentially the same as this year’s.  Even with a tuition increase, we do not anticipate being able to fund more than a small handful of new positions or to take on new initiatives except by reallocating existing resources, as we are doing to meet our most pressing enrollment needs and for strategic plan priorities.  We await word from Albany on several priority requests for small capital projects ($1 million or less) we submitted to be funded out of a $49 million allocation in the state budget for “strategic initiatives” at SUNY campuses. 

Our financial situation next year and into the future will depend heavily on whether we meet our enrollment targets, both undergraduate and graduate.  I have reported for some time the very challenging student recruitment environment in which we operate.  Especially with the increasingly frequent reports of budgetary and programming consequences of declining enrollments at many campuses, we are watching our numbers closely and with some anxiety.  But we will not have a clear picture of enrollment – and its financial implications – for several weeks at least. 

Convocation, State of the College. I am grateful to the faculty, staff, and students who contributed to recent, lively brainstorming sessions about revamping the Fall Convocation event.  One goal of our strategic plan is to actively engage students in their intellectual and personal development.  Convocation is a pivotal moment to inspire our students as motivated and responsible learners. This is an opportunity for new students to hear unequivocal messages about our goals for their learning, our expectations for their roles, and the privilege of a lifetime that comes with a college education.  Our strategic plan also aims to strengthen the engagement of alumni with the College.  Strong alumni loyalty often begins with the first days a student spends on campus.  Convocation can contribute to these outcomes.     

Our group discussions drew on perceptions of our current convocation format; experiences with similar events at other institutions; the inspiration that many drew from the recent session with Jim Langley about development and alumni relations; a shared sense that this event needs to become more clearly focused on students; and creative ideas about how to make our convocation a more compelling ritual.  We will be working with these ideas in the coming months to modify this fall’s convocation.  No matter how this event evolves, strong faculty and staff presence and participation will be essential, and we will apprise you in advance of the new format.

Please mark your calendars on Friday, August 22, for the annual State of the College address (9:30 A.M., preceded by informal breakfast and social hour beginning at 8:45 A.M.).  Our discussions about changing convocation included timing during the day, and we are considering alternatives to the traditional noon slot; we will share this detail early in the summer so that departmental activities can be planned.

Gulliver. An upcoming outdoor sculpture-on-loan being installed on the campus may provide an interesting focal point for classes that might draw on political, literary, philosophical, or other lessons and themes of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  “Gulliver” is a 37-foot long bronze sculpture by world-renowned public artist Tom Otterness, whose sometimes whimsical work many of you no doubt have seen in New York City parks and subways or in other cities around the world. Thanks to the impetus of the Dorsky Museum of Art curator Dan Belasco and the campus Arts and Aesthetics Committee, chaired by John McEnrue, Director of Design and Construction, Gulliver will be installed this summer in the courtyard between Smiley Art and Sojourner Truth Library, for 6 months to 1 year, with costs covered by private funds.  It is being brought to campus in coordination with an upcoming Dorsky Museum exhibition featuring the work of Dick Polich, founder and president of Polich Tallix, a Hudson River Valley metal casting and fabrication firm.  Polich has been the leader in creating many of the world’s most recognizable monuments and sculptures, including many of Otterness’ pieces. 

Wilderness Act of 1964 and Fall-Semester Educational Programming.  I wrote last month about the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1964 passage of the federal Wilderness Act, in collaboration with the Mohonk Preserve and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust.  Provost Mauceri recently met with faculty to discuss educational programming ideas during this celebration. 

One possibility for linkages to your courses will be our fall semester Distinguished Speaker.   I am excited to announce that Richard Louv (http://richardlouv.com/; pronounced “Loove”) will speak on campus on the evening of October 21.  Louv has written eight books on the connections between family, nature, and community.  His most recent (2011) book “The Nature Principle” addresses the issue that our society – in his words - “ has developed such an outsized faith in technology that we have yet to fully realize or even adequately study how human capacities are enhanced through the power of nature.”  In his highly acclaimed and very influential 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods,” Louv coined and discussed the concept of “nature deficit disorder.” His writing has stimulated an international conversation about the relationship between children and nature.  A journalist by background, Louv has received numerous writing awards, serves on several editorial boards, and has been a visiting Professor at Clemson University.  He is especially drawn to the celebration of the Wilderness Act and its underlying spirit, which aligns so closely with his writing.    

START-UP NY. Empire State Development (ESD), the State’s economic development agency, has approved our campus plan for START-UP NY, the economic development initiative that establishes tax-free areas for business partnerships with SUNY campuses.  In preparing our final campus plan, we considered the feedback we received from faculty and student governance, employee union leadership, and municipalities.  We are now able to explore possible partnerships more directly with several companies that we have been in conversation with in recent months.  We continue to have new contacts, both directly to the campus and through the START-UP program. 

Faculty and Staff Appreciation Picnic.  Our all-campus end-of-year barbeque and picnic is scheduled to be held on the Old Main Quad on Wednesday, May 21, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.  I hope that you will be able to join us to spend relaxed time at the end of the year with colleagues from across the campus.

I look forward to seeing you at the Faculty meeting on Friday, May 2, where I will be available to respond to questions orcomments you may have about this report or other topics. I wish everyone well for the completion of the semester and for a productive, successful, and rejuvenating summer.

Sincerely,
Donald P. Christian
President