TO: Jonathan Espinosa, Class of ’13, and Concerned SUNY New Paltz Alumni
FROM: Donald P. Christian, President
DATE: August 28, 2020
SUBJECT: Response to Petition
In addition to information shared in our June 30 letter in response to the petition that you and other alumni developed, I provide the following responses to deepen your understanding of actions underway at SUNY New Paltz, and to build on conversations and demands shared during our recent town hall about Dismantling Racism on Aug. 11, 2020. You also may be interested in reading or viewing my recent State of the College Address, where I spoke about these issues and highlighted other priority work underway this year.
1. We demand the percentage of enrolled (currently 8%) and retained (currently 7%) Black undergraduate students at SUNY New Paltz to be no less than the percentage of Black residents in New York state (currently 17%)
RESPONSE: We share your interest in seeing more Black students in our student population, Several realities affect the goal, including:
- More than half of New Paltz students (transfer and first-year combined) come from four counties (three in the mid-Hudson plus Suffolk) that have 7-11% Black residents.
- The Black population in the five boroughs is reported to be about 25%, but only about 14% of New Paltz students hail from New York City
- We struggle with limited success to compete with CUNY 2-year and 4-year campuses; the lower cost for New York City residents to attend CUNY is unquestionably a significant factor in that competition and the choices students make about where to enroll. About 25% of CUNY students in upper-division campuses are Black, reflecting that draw.
- We are also painfully aware of persistent K-12 school segregation, differential funding, and resulting disparities in high school graduation rates that hinder opportunities for Black students to pursue higher education.
We hear anecdotally that many New York students and high school guidance counselors have never heard of New Paltz, or we are often dismissed as “upstate.” These perspectives impact the number of applications from the five boroughs where the representation of Black prospective students is higher.
Our greater challenge seems to be increasing the proportion of accepted Black applicants who choose to attend our university; only 12% do so, compared with 20% of white applicants. Not only are we competing with opportunities offered by CUNY (as noted above) but Black student applicants who meet New Paltz admission criteria likely have other choices and we believe that factors like more robust institutional financial aid offered by those other institutions (especially private colleges) become important variables for students and families in deciding where to ultimately enroll.
If we are able to influence more Black students to choose New Paltz we are confident of their success. The percentage of white and Black students at New Paltz who come back for a second year – about 86% for both – is far above national averages and reflects a strongly supportive learning environment for all students. Black students at SUNY New Paltz graduate after six years (the federal standard) at 75%, approaching the 78% for white students. These statistics are dramatically counter to national averages that show a White-Black disparity of 24% (64% vs. 40%). Students in our Scholars Mentorship Program (SMP) graduate at rates >80%, and the graduation rate for students in our Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), who overcome both financial and academic barriers, is 73%. These programs along with our AMP/CSTEP (AC^2) programs that have a long history of supporting underrepresented students in STEM fields, are key contributors to the successes of our students. We are proud of the achievements of Black students at New Paltz, and that they are leaving here having graduated at rates on a par with majority students. The success of all students at SUNY New Paltz has notably increased the value of a SUNY New Paltz degree for all graduates.
We want to influence the variables that we can to bring more Black students to New Paltz and experience such success. In our recent virtual town hall, we heard the clear affection and appreciation that many alumni have for the University and what you took away from your time here, even as we have room to be better. We welcome your engagement as alumni in working toward the goals that we share. We would like to hold another virtual town hall among alumni and campus leaders to brainstorm about how we can partner to advance these recruitment goals. We welcome hearing about your interest in supporting this effort.
We would like to discuss ways to partner with alumni on a pilot program to implement this year. Possibilities might include a program of individual Black alumni contacting accepted but not-yet-committed Black applicants – new and transfer – to encourage them to matriculate to SUNY New Paltz. We would provide relevant information, data, and key talking points to help applicants gain better appreciation of what New Paltz has to offer. Or we might consider a virtual panel presentation of Black alumni sharing New Paltz experiences and responding to questions from applicants and their parents. The voices of Black alumni would be a compelling addition to the message our printed and online recruitment materials convey. Such efforts do not require major financial investment, important given severe funding constraints we are facing, but require time and consistency as we implement such programs and assess their impact.
One of the priorities for our current fund-raising campaign is scholarship support for low-income and underrepresented students, which we are confident will produce benefits over the long term. We are putting in place a working group to develop a plan and recommendations for ways that we might allocate institutional scholarship funds differently, to support goals of diversity and inclusion. These priorities recognize the diminishing direct taxpayer support for higher education and the shift to student and family cost-bearing, an area where campus leadership and alumni petitioners unquestionably are in agreement.
Because it relates to the topic at hand, I will comment on one of your demands to the Governor that SUNY and CUNY campuses become “open admission”; admissions policy is the only element of that demand that is reasonably under campus authority. I understand the commitment to access that underlies your advocacy for that goal, overall for SUNY and CUNY, and for SUNY New Paltz as one of the most selective of SUNY campuses. But I hope you think carefully about the broader consequences of your continuing advocacy for that goal. One of the biggest tragedies and travesties in higher education are students who attend college supported by loans, accrue loan debt (for public universities, amplified because of reduced state support), and do not earn a degree. Those citizens are saddled with paying off loan debt but without the degree that offers the career opportunities and remuneration that make it possible to pay off loans while realizing the financial and other life advantages of a college education. That is important context for the selectivity and exceptional student success at SUNY New Paltz.
2. We demand the continuous full funding of the Black Studies Department, Women and Gender Studies Department, and Scholar’s Mentorship program, and conversion of the Latino/Caribbean Studies, Native American Studies, and Asian Studies Programs into autonomous, fully funded departments. This includes more full-time, tenure-track professors for these departments.
RESPONSE: It is unclear why the perception persists that the funding of these departments and programs has been or is in jeopardy. Never, under my tenure as President, has there been any discussion of underfunding or withholding funding from these areas, nor of converting Black Studies from a Department to a Program. There have been dedicated efforts to support the Black Studies Department, specifically, as we hold that department – one of the first in the nation -- as a proud part of our campus identity and a key contributor in contemporary times. We affirm that - as we continue to act on our institutional commitment to social justice - we will continue to support the Department of Black Studies and its mission.
Funding for tenure-track lines has not been withheld and there have been continuous efforts to support the growth of the department. The Black Studies Department saw in one year the departure of three tenure-track faculty due to retirement or resignation. Since then, all three lines have been approved and filled by full-time tenure-track faculty. Approval for all faculty lines is informed by the University’s larger fiscal and academic planning each year as well as by enrollment trends.
Establishment of new academic departments typically originates with proposals from the faculty that are reviewed through the appropriate faculty governance committees and Faculty Senate or the full Faculty. Those reviewers’ recommendations are then considered by campus leadership. This process assures that faculty and faculty governance have a strong voice and role in initiating, advancing, and approving such proposals.
An important consideration in inherently interdisciplinary endeavors such as these is how to bring together very different forms of knowledge and expertise grounded in key academic disciplines – building integration but not losing fundamental disciplinary connection. This is one of the values of program, rather than departmental, forms of organization. For example, the Asian Studies Program at SUNY New Paltz includes faculty from ten (10) departments, as disparate as Art History and Political Science; maintaining disciplinary strength would be a challenge were they all in a single department. Hybrid organizations can be very effective: Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) at New Paltz includes several faculty whose sole appointments are in LACS, but also faculty who hold joint appointments in LACS and one of nine other departments. Such interdisciplinary organizations are important for helping students understand the complexity of current issues and problems. Some departments have been reluctant to consider such interdisciplinary structures.
The point is that converting programs to departments is not as straightforward as suggested in your petition, and may carry negative consequences for educational quality and student experiences.
All of that said, costs associated with supporting a new standalone department often represent a hurdle that is difficult to clear as state support for higher education has decreased, so much that not only are some institutions merging campuses, but also increasingly merging academic units.
3. We demand the University conduct an equity audit of all courses, and provide the necessary training and other infrastructure support to ensure an anti-racist curriculum.
RESPONSE: We have common goals with you and think that many faculty do as well. The Provost reached out this summer to faculty governance leadership affirming that while curricular review and revision are primarily the purview of the faculty, campus and academic leadership strongly support a review of our curricular offerings and instructional approaches to better position and highlight current course offerings on the dynamics of race, racism, and inequity so that we can more effectively educate our students on these issues. Such a review will necessarily entail an inventory of courses and programs addressing these curricular goals. We have also requested faculty review of pedagogical approaches that foster greater equity in educational outcomes.
Faculty will be supported in such efforts through the work of the Faculty Development Center and through support of proposals from faculty. That includes faculty engaged in the Black Lives Matter at School initiative, the Black Lives Matter in STEM faculty coalition, and the pilot of the Diversity Faculty Fellows program, to name examples of faculty commitment to advancing anti-racist curricula and pedagogies.
4. We demand an increase of at least two quality, full-time, tenure-tracked Black faculty (not lecturers) in each and all academic departments, and living wage pay for all adjunct professors.
RESPONSE: We hold firmly to the principle that diversifying the faculty is critical to delivering on our mission, and believe that students of color should have more opportunity to learn from faculty who look like them and have similar lived experiences. Similarly, we see great value in white students being able to learn from faculty of color who have had different lived experiences. While laws prohibit quota-based hiring using race or other protected class as a criterion and candidates cannot be required to identify race or other protected class status within the interview process, we will continue focused efforts to diversify the faculty.
We have and continue to take steps to educate the campus community, specifically faculty serving on search committees, to create more inclusive hiring outcomes. Last year, we introduced an expectation that all faculty who serve on search committees receive training on implicit bias in candidate evaluation, and on how to recruit to attract BIPOC faculty. This training helped with framing questions about working with diverse students that may not even have been asked in the past, and what to look for in candidate responses. For example, interview questions now include asking candidates to address their experience working with and supporting diverse student populations. How do they adapt teaching and advising to meet students of diverse learning styles and needs? How do they create inclusive classroom cultures? What ways have they contributed to inclusion and equity initiatives or how can their interest/success in those areas help advance that work on our campus? These efforts and others are part of ongoing and long-term best practices to gain ground on our shared objective.
Faculty across the college have actively taken steps to yield more diverse applicant and finalist pools for positions. This fall, we are joined by 7 new BIPOC faculty, about 1/3 of the tenure-line faculty hired. We successfully concluded a “cluster hire” in a key department: several BIPOC faculty with shared expertise and interest coming in as a cohort, a practice demonstrated to increase retention of underrepresented faculty. These are results on the path to building a critical mass of BIPOC faculty and moving along the continuum toward anti-racist structural change. Is the success of one or even several recruitment efforts enough or the end of our efforts? Absolutely not. As we emerge from the challenges of COVID-19, we hope the fiscal and broader higher education landscape allow us to build on our success and maintain momentum in our goals.
We appreciate our Adjunct faculty and recognize the work they do and the critical role they play in delivering on our instructional mission. We respect their contributions to campus culture and value them as community members. Compensation is subject to collective bargaining, which takes place at the State, not campus, level. Most of our adjunct faculty are compensated at levels well above the minimum negotiated in the most recent faculty collective bargaining agreement. Our resource constraints, noted above, limit our ability to offer even higher compensation levels. We understand that going above those floors to the degree possible is only one step in a larger matter of living wages and equity, and we hope venues like collective bargaining and state funding allocations for higher education continue to address these issues.
5. We demand the University Police Department be disarmed, be defunded by at least 75%, and that all drugs be fully decriminalized.
RESPONSE: We are unable to commit to a predetermined percentage of defunding of the University Police Department (UPD). There seems to be a perception that UPD is excessively staffed, when in fact, it is a very lean department, with staffing barely adequate to minimally fulfill its 24/7 responsibility (most departments do not have such responsibility). Moreover, advocates for defunding must consider the consequences to students and campus safety if reduced UPD capability would mean we must rely on outside police agencies whose officers lack the specific training and expectations of working in special ways with students, and whose response to a major on-campus emergency might be delayed. As campus president with ultimate responsibility for campus safety and well-being, I must sustain the campus capacity to respond to life-threatening emergencies or crimes on a college campus.
We continue to hold our UPD to the highest expectations. I encourage you to review the recent statement of commitment by UPD to be an anti-racist law enforcement organization and the underlying values, training, and accountability measures that guide its work. The SUNY New Paltz UPD is accredited through the NYS Law Enforcement Accreditation Program. About one-half of SUNY UPD’s to meet that standard and only 25% of non-SUNY law enforcement agencies in the State are accredited. Accredited organizations have met expectations for 109 standards, 20 of which are “critical standards.”
Campus leadership does not have the authority to decriminalize all drugs at the campus level.
While other demands were directed to the Governor, I offer some perspective and information on point #8:
8. We demand that Black Studies be a mandatory General Education course for first-year students, which is taught by Black professors and discusses issues like white privilege, systemic racism, microaggressions, and social injustices against Black people.
Campus leadership fully supports the premise that educating a more informed citizenry MUST include exposure to and education in cultural studies, more specifically the study of race and racism and inequity in American society. Further, we hold that such exposure should not be cursory or peripheral to the educational experience at New Paltz. We fully support faculty governance, in their purview over curriculum, to determine degree requirements and will continue our advocacy with them to address this need.
At SUNY New Paltz, more than 70 Black Studies courses have been developed and offered. A number of them fulfill General Education requirements that must be met by all matriculating students, including:
- Social Sciences (2 courses)
- United States Studies (3)
- Western Civilization (1)
- World Civilizations (5)
- Humanities (4)
Nine (9) Black Studies courses can be used by students to fulfill the Diversity graduation requirement. The Provost’s request to faculty governance leaders includes reviewing the framing of that requirement and the array of courses that satisfy it. The goal of that request is to better assure that in completing this requirement students learn about systemic racism and inequity, white supremacy, white privilege, and related topics.
I hope that these points along with those shared in the June 30 message to students, faculty and staff, and alumni demonstrate our commitment and the steps underway to address the concerns you wrote to us about and raised during the town hall with alumni. The marking last week of the 57th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington underscores the many ways our nation has not progressed in addressing racial inequities, including the unrelenting violence toward Black Americans. We recognize and share the underlying urgency that has motivated your petition. We also recognize that achieving our goals will not be an overnight task. That does not mean we will not continue to make dismantling racism at SUNY New Paltz a top priority.
We look forward to learning of alumni interest in being part of our work to recruit more Black students to SUNY New Paltz.
Donald P. Christian