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Updates 02/13/2009

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Faculty and Professional Staff Meeting President's Report 2/13/09

First, I need to apologize for not being with you for our meeting. I’m part of a delegation of SUNY presidents slated to meet Friday afternoon with Senator Schumer in New York City. We intend to discuss how the State University can play a larger role in revitalizing the state economy and explore the prospects for directing federal stimulus funding to SUNY.

But before I shift to the budget—the topic on everyone’s mind—there are a number of other significant items I’d like to share.

First-Year Retention: Vice President Rooney reports that our retention rate for fall 2008 freshmen returning this spring is an extraordinary 96%. This is a testament to how our entire campus community pitched in to serve the needs of a larger-than-expected freshman cohort. We knew back in August that taking the best care of this talented group was a key task; I’m proud that we’ve obviously succeeded. And I must note that I’ve been impressed with the energy, spirit and level of participation of our first-year students. They’ve shown up, en masse, for art events, sporting contests and team-building exercises—creating a more vibrant extra-curricular life on campus. As you know, however, we’re aiming for a smaller freshman cohort this fall.

Enrollment: Reflecting the large freshman class, spring enrollments are at 7,560, up 3.4% compared to 2008.  Freshman applications for fall 2009 are running 10% ahead of this time last year (presently at 14,321), pushing us even further into record territory.  Transfer applications for fall 2009 are robust as well - currently running 28% ahead of fall 2008, at 1,263.  This dramatic increase in prospective students will result in more rigorous admission standards for all applicants.

Use of Part-Time Faculty: I’m pleased to report that the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts dropped to 30.5% in fall 2008, down from 34% in fall 2007 and 37% in fall 2006. Looking back historically, Provost Lavallee tells me that when he came to New Paltz a decade ago, the percentage was close to 50%. With the progress we’ve made, New Paltz is no longer an outlier among SUNY institutions; we’ve met the System-wide goal of having 70% of instruction delivered by full-timers. I salute the Provost, Deans and Chairs for their diligence in bringing down these numbers. Now our challenge becomes maintaining these figures in parlous financial times.

Searches for a new Provost and a new Dean of Fine and Performing Arts: Both search committees are working hard and well to find talented candidates. The Provost search committee held off-campus interviews with seven candidates in early January; three finalists will interview on campus later this month. The search committee for the Dean has completed telephone interviews with 10 candidates and has narrowed the field to a very strong pool of five or six candidates, who will visit campus in the coming weeks.

New Chancellor: As this report was being finalized, news broke of SUNY Central’s appointment of a new Chancellor: Nancy Zimpher, currently the President of the University of Cincinnati.  While I do not know Dr. Zimpher personally, I hear good things about her and I welcome this appointment. SUNY has badly missed the stability and stature of a permanent Chancellor; I’m looking forward to having a new boss who’s an established academic leader, with deep-seated scholarly values.

Shuttle Bus: The Student Association, in conjunction with the college, the village, the town, the county, and the state, has created a bus service in New Paltz. The 30-minute loop runs from campus, through downtown to the shopping plazas, and back. Students, faculty and staff can ride for free—just by showing your college ID—because of the subsidies provided by the SA and the college (we are contributing the gasoline). This is a pilot program; it needs robust ridership to become permanent, so I urge you to take advantage of this service. Promoting public transit is a good way to protect our environment and reduce our individual and collective carbon footprints. 

Construction: Our two major projects—renovation of Old Main and the addition to the Student Union—are proceeding well. So now we’re working to line up and launch our next set of projects. The planning committee for the new science building, to be located at the corner of South Manheim and Plattekill, has finished its work. Thanks to Dean Jelski and his colleagues for thinking creatively about flexible space that will facilitate faculty-student collaboration in learning and research. The next step is to hire an architect for the building project.

We have just selected an architect for Phase I of the Campus Facilities Master Plan. This project includes the east-west Mohonk Walk, the greening of the main academic concourse and the greening of the Hasbrouck Quad. I’m eager for this project to begin soon, for it will have a dramatic positive impact on the appearance and feel of the central campus.

On a separate and more modest front, the Career Resource Center has moved from the 7th floor of the Haggerty Building to its new home in Humanities 105. This location in the heart of campus will help the Center serve students better and is consistent with our goal to prepare them for their lives and careers.

It is important to keep in mind that funding for our construction projects is separate and distinct from the college’s budget for daily operating expenses, including salaries. These funding streams are not interchangeable. If we were to stop construction it would not generate dollars to support our daily work. It is SUNY’s operating funds (not capital money) that have been the target of state cuts this year. So let me turn now to that topic.

State Budget: As Vice President DiStefano and I have written to you previously, the final magnitude of the state budget cuts for New Paltz depends on the 2009-10 budget negotiated in Albany. Currently, we face an envelope of cuts that in the best case would leave us with a deficit of $3.9 million and in the worst case a deficit of as much as $9 million—35% of the direct state support provided to our campus in 2007-08! To put these deficits in context, the college’s current spending plan is allocated as follows: 84% ($51.6 million) for salaries; 6% ($3.7 million) for utilities and 10% ($6.4 million) for all other costs.

Since our last meeting in December, there have been several important budget developments:
1) The Governor issued a 2008-09 deficit reduction plan calling for a fourth cut to the State University that would be “filled” by a $310 tuition hike this semester. But in a particularly troubling twist, the Governor proposed that 90% of the new tuition money go to the state’s general fund and only 10% to SUNY.
2) Last week the Legislature approved the Governor’s plan and the 90% sweep of tuition money. This was profoundly upsetting—especially since the Legislature insisted on eliminating a $10 million cut to SUNY’s community colleges but endorsed a $68.5 million tuition sweep from the state-operated campuses.
3) For fiscal year 2009-10, the Governor is proposing at least two more cuts. The most disturbing of these is a cut that, again, would on its face be “filled” with a tuition increase of $620. When added to the spring 2009 tuition increase, this is estimated to generate $152.2 million in additional tuition revenue. This time the Governor is calling for 80% of the new tuition to be “swept” by the state for undesignated “general purposes,” leaving just 20% to go to campuses for education.
4) The Governor is also proposing another recurring base cut of $50 million to be filled from extant campus reserves. How the Governor intends to fill a base cut with one-time money is a mystery; more unfair, however, is the prospect that reserve funds accumulated by campuses like New Paltz to deal with financial emergencies might be raided to replenish other state coffers.

So what are we doing about this situation?

Externally, we are mobilizing political support to try to block the proposed sweep of 80% of new tuition dollars into the state’s general fund. I’ve met several times with state legislators about this issue. To those who voted against the tuition sweep, I’ve extended my thanks. To those who voted for the sweep, I’ve bluntly expressed my incredulity and disappointment. But I have also decided to take a step I’ve never taken in my seven-plus years as New Paltz’s president. I’m reaching out to faculty, staff, students, parents and alumni asking them to write to the state’s political leaders on New Paltz’s behalf and in opposition to this proposed sweep of tuition dollars. I do not take such action lightly; I believe public universities succeed in the long run by staying somewhat aloof and apart from the political fray. But in an unprecedented fiscal crunch like this, when many of our traditional legislative allies are silent or unhelpful, we need to muster all the pressure we can on the college’s behalf. To make it easy, we’ve created a soon-to-be-launched Web site (www.supportnewpaltz.com) to help you advocate for the college. I expect UUP and CSEA will also pitch in as they see best in support of this effort.

Internally, you’ll recall from my last report that the college’s senior leadership team was crafting a process for making budget decisions. We’ve made excellent progress. Our planning started with a group of vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, deans and directors I’ve consulted with for several years now (and who self-deprecatingly refer to themselves as the “Policy Wonks” or the “Wonk Group”). As Presiding Officer Mozayeni has told you before, to deal with this financial mess we’ve expanded our group to include several faculty governance representatives: the Presiding Officer, Chair of the Budget, Goals and Plans Committee Chris DeLape, and Chair of the Organization Committee Mary Kahl. This larger group (which I’m now calling the “Wonks+”) has spent considerable time developing the process we’ll follow this spring. A summary is attached. Two features are critically important for everyone to understand: (1) timing and (2) the various opportunities afforded the broader campus community for input and consultation.

With regard to timing, I need to remind you that the budget cuts for 2008-09 are already operative. To carry us through the remainder of this year, we’re using a substantial chunk of our reserves, possibly as much as $2.8 million. While one always hates to dip into a rainy day fund, the magnitude of the pending cuts and the necessity of taking the time to make smart choices certainly justify such spending now. But we need to do our planning while our community is still assembled and make decisions promptly because the cuts for 2009-10 will take effect this spring. So you’ll note that our timeline has us finishing the budget plan in early May. I expect that in some cases, implementation of our final plan will take several years.

With regard to substance, we’ve tried to create a process that—in addition to the varied and very candid voices already around the table—gives the entire campus opportunities at several key junctures to share ideas and shape our responses. Vice President DiStefano has already written to everyone asking for revenue-generating and cost-saving ideas. The next and—perhaps most critical—moment for campus input will be soliciting reactions to the proposed criteria for decision making (more on that in a moment). Throughout the process, background information will be shared with faculty, staff and students on my.newpaltz.edu. When we have developed recommendations that affect particular units or functions, staff in those units will have an opportunity to discuss and even dispute the recommendations before they are revised or finalized. And there will be a public comment period on the budget plan before it is actually implemented. In all of these ways, we are trying to draw on the wisdom of our community. But we shall need to make some very hard choices, and we cannot shy from doing so.

Those of you who have been here a long time have seen the progress we’ve made in recent years. We’re not going to turn back now, to dilute our quality by inaction, or passively let external events dictate our future profile.

With the above-described process in place, our faculty, administrative and academic leaders have turned their attention to setting ground rules for our deliberations. All our discussions will be shaped by the following considerations:

  • A commitment to New Paltz’s quality and reputation must drive our decisions; we must maintain our forward momentum.
  • We must be willing to do what is right for the long-term health of the institution, even if it necessitates some uncomfortable change.
  • The process by which decisions are made must be aligned with our mission and be thoughtful and consistent.
  • We must focus on what is core to our mission—educating students—and look to cut/reduce peripheral activities.
  • Simple, across-the-board cuts are inconsistent with preserving quality; instead we must make choices and impose targeted cuts.
  • One-time savings can help, especially during a transition period, but base cuts must be met with base savings.
  • Given the magnitude of the budget cuts, we cannot solve our problem just with attrition or reductions in nonpersonnel expenses (e.g., supplies, utilities, travel); unfortunately, we must reduce the size of our workforce and scale back or eliminate some services.
  • All ideas, big and small, are on the table.
  • We will seek to eliminate duplication of services and effort across unit lines.
  • We will seek to leverage technology as much as possible.
  • Proposed actions must be assessed in terms of their impact on the state-appropriated operating budget (e.g., any new revenue source has to provide net relief, accounting for all costs, to that budget).
  • Communication (internal and external) must be a critical component of our plan.

Clearly there are some constraints that will limit our freedom of action in making budget decisions. For instance:

  • We must comply with legal, policy and contractual obligations.
  • We must adhere to our schedule; decisions must be made by the end of the semester.
  • We must maintain and meet our enrollment targets.
  • We must maintain an appropriate level of reserves.
  • We must not let deadlines pass (e.g., sabbaticals, hires, term reappointments, tenure).
  • We must continue to make critical expenditures/investments (personnel and equipment) in line with our mission.

As you can see from BudgetProcessTimetable *, we need to develop the criteria that we’ll actually use to make budget decisions. The best, most forward-looking, and most broadly accepted plans will come from evaluating data and making choices within the framework of such criteria. As soon as we have a draft set of criteria, we’ll share them with the community for comment, criticism, amendment, refinement, substitution and improvement. In short, we need your thinking on this central aspect of the process. We shall write to you again shortly about this.

It’s undeniable that our college, SUNY, New York State and the nation are facing almost unprecedented financial challenges. That may seem frightening. But such fear has to be tempered by the recognition that colleges are extraordinary long-lived and resilient institutions. Great colleges—and New Paltz must be one of these!—use even difficult times to make smart choices and build long-term strength. So we’ll take advantage of this challenge to find ways to work smarter and more creatively across disciplinary and functional boundaries. We’ll use this period to think about what we do that is most important—and conversely, what tasks we do that might no longer be necessary. Unlike some other institutions, and maybe even unlike this institution in the past, we’re going to position ourselves so that when the recession ends, we’re ready to make immediate progress rather than just trying to recoup ground we’ve lost. I’m confident we have the right set of people and the right process in place to help us achieve this end. I look forward to further conversations and to your help.

- Steve Poskanzer