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Updates

Faculty and Professional Staff Meeting President's Report 11/21/08

This month’s report is of the good news/bad news variety—with (predictably) most of the latter concerning the budget.  But before turning to the emerging consequences of New York State’s fiscal woes, let me offer one unalloyed piece of happy campus news.

For only the second time in college history, a New Paltz team is an NCAA regional champion!  Last weekend, in their first-ever NCAA appearance, our women’s volleyball team won the Division III Regional tournament.  They now advance to the Elite Eight round of the national tournament in Bloomington, Illinois, where they will take on the University of La Verne (CA) today at 4:30 p.m. (Eastern time).  Live stats and web streaming of the match can be found at http://www.iwu.edu/ncaaVB/.  We should all be very proud of coach Matt Giufre and the Lady Hawks, who take an impressive 32-9 record into this game. 

Kudos as well to all faculty, staff and student volunteers who pulled off two successful Open Houses.  Between these two events we hosted more than 7,000 visitors to campus—about 1,000 more than attended our sole open house last fall.  The Admissions Office, the Deans, Provost Lavallee and I all appreciate the extra work accommodating the growing interest in New Paltz; presumably our efforts will be rewarded with more applications from the best students and a strong and diverse entering class next autumn.  So far, applications are up very considerably from last year—at least 25%.  This is just what we’d expect, given the college’s quality, its rising popularity, and an economic downturn that will have students flocking to high caliber and affordable public universities.

Speaking of that downturn, the recession (let’s call it what it is) is roiling SUNY’s budget.  In these reports I’ve often described the annual budget negotiations as a dance—a ritualized series of proposals and counterproposals, steps forward and retreats that (to my mind at least) recall a courtly minuet or quadrille.  Not so this year.  In 2008, budget talks are a literal slam dance, full of aggression and resulting in plenty of bruises.  With this unfortunately colorful (i.e., black and blue) metaphor in mind, here’s the news since last week’s update.  Alas, it’s not very encouraging. 

You’ll recall that SUNY Central finally decided how to allocate the third round of cuts to campuses ($96 million) and that as a result New Paltz was saddled with a base $3 million cut for FY10 and thereafter.  Three important contingencies remained.  Would there be a tuition increase (immediately, next fall, or both) that might substantially decrease our deficit?  Would the Governor propose further cuts that might substantially increase our deficit?  And would the state provide campuses with funding for negotiated salary increases (an unfunded mandate would substantially increase our deficit)?

In the last few days, as feared, the Governor proposed another fourth round of base budget cuts to SUNY, totaling about $66 million in FY09 and an estimated $116 million in FY10 and thereafter.  The Governor also proposes to increase SUNY’s tuition by $600 to cover these latest cuts—but not to allay any of the three prior FY09 rounds of cuts.  Essentially, the budget office proposes to take with one hand what they give with another:  students must pay higher tuition, starting this spring, but there will be no enhancements to their education.  Instead, almost all the money would be used to fill the latest hole punched into SUNY’s budget.  I hasten to remind you that this is merely a proposal, which has not been endorsed by the legislature.  But it certainly demonstrates that the budget office is more than willing to keep cutting SUNY (which does not require legislative consent) and does not view tuition money as dedicated for educational purposes.

With a potential fourth cut looming, tuition becomes all the more critical.  So I was quite disappointed yesterday when the SUNY Board of Trustees essentially chose to follow the Governor’s lead and only raise in-state undergraduate tuition by $620 per year, starting with a $310 increase for the Spring 2009 semester.  The Board rejected the joint recommendation of state-operated campus Presidents and CFOs to raise tuition by a total of $1,090—a figure that would have provided genuine relief to campuses and not merely filled in the latest cut.  It is always painful to raise tuition because of the impact on students and their families.  But it is doubly disturbing that in this case the tuition increase is likely to do nothing more than negate a fourth cut.  The only “positive” thing to be said about the latest set of proposals is that, cumulatively, they would not increase our projected $3 million deficit.  Of course they don’t reduce it either!

This brings us to the third open question.  As I suspect you’ve heard, the Governor also proposes to withhold negotiated salary increases for next year.  Needless to say, this will be hotly resisted by UUP and CSEA.  But for purposes of the campus’ fiscal planning, we cannot blithely assume that funding for raises will be provided.  All too frequently in the past, the Budget Office has simply passed this kind of back door cut along to SUNY. 

Salary increases for New Paltz are likely to total about $2 million.  In a worst-case scenario then—the scenario we must use for making our budget plans at this point—New Paltz may face a $5 million operating budget cut for FY10 (on a state operating budget of $57 million and a total all-funds budget of $130 million).  Our planning must proceed from this base, though of course we devoutly hope to avoid—and will do everything we can to prevent—such an outcome.

As I’ve said before, we have healthy reserves (about $5.3 million) to draw upon, especially in absorbing the FY09 deficit.  These funds were meant to be used for a rainy day, and it’s raining steadily now.  Deploying these funds will give us time this winter to plan thoughtfully about how best to respond to the cuts and how to align the college for future success.  We’ll be reaching out regularly to the campus community with updates and requests for advice.  As the first order of business, the Vice Presidents and I have begun to think about the wisest consultative process to follow.  The necessary choices that constitute solutions will come later.  But it bears repeating that there will be plenty of opportunities to help develop, critique, and improve any initial proposals that emerge. 

New Paltz has enormous academic strength—and we shall not dilute our quality.  But we can surely find ways to be more creative and effective in pursuit of our goals.  There are always opportunities to be seized in moments of stress, and I expect our campus will be especially able to embrace needed change.  We can come through this period positioned for greater distinction, with the flexibility and funds needed for critical new investments.  This is how brave and excellent colleges meet fiscal challenges.  Surely New Paltz merits such appellations—and that may be the right hopeful and thankful note on which to close, as we disperse next week to feast with family and friends.

- Steve Poskanzer