Good morning! Many of us traveled this summer. In fact, fourteen of our students along with New Paltz faculty and staff, traveled to Puerto Rico as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s hurricane relief efforts. Thank you to the Institute for Disaster Mental Health and Center for International Programs for making this life-changing humanitarian experience possible for our students.
Time Travel or a Guided Meditation
I know others in this room also traveled to places near and far this summer. I ask you all to join me for a bit more travel, a short exercise that takes us into the future. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to do anything strange. This is a mind exercise only. I ask everyone to close your eyes. Go ahead. Join me. … Imagine you’re a drone flying over the campus of SUNY New Paltz. Not today, but rather, in the year 2040 – we are taking a trip 22 years into the future. What do you see? ... Are there new buildings? Are there fewer buildings? … What do you recognize? … As you walk into an academic building, who do you see and what are they doing? … What technology is being used? … Who are the professors? How are they teaching? … How are the students engaged in learning? … Now quietly leave the building and use your 2040 version of mobile technology, possibly embedded in your forearm, to look up the tuition and fees being charged to attend SUNY New Paltz in 2040. … Are you surprised at the cost? … Hang onto those images.
The Year 2040
Now, slowly, open your eyes. I’m sure that if I could survey you in this instant, we would find very different imagined forms for our college in 2040. Which will actually come to pass? How will decisions we make – or do not make – in 2018 and 19, influence that outcome? That’s a theme that I want to explore in today’s address. My goal is to help us think about our immediate challenges, opportunities, and strategic priorities, but focusing more than usual on our long-term future. I doubt that I will be president 22 years from now! But depending on whether you decide to stay here, or when you intend to retire, as many as 400 current employees might still be here in 2040. We are talking about the university you will create and inherit. Many of you will complete your careers here.
More than 200 current employees were here 22 years ago. You have witnessed the ways that we’ve changed in two decades. We will look back at some of those changes. They give us a sense of our capacity for change. We will need to exercise that capacity to the fullest now and in the future.
For the next few minutes, we will look to the immediate future: the official kickoff of our new year at noon today with our annual Fall Convocation. This is an important rite-of-passage for new students. Professor of Art Myra Mimlitsch-Gray will serve as Faculty Grand Marshal and macebearer and will welcome new students on behalf of the faculty. She is a recent recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. Isabelle Hayes, a political science and public relations major, will share a student perspective. Providing the alumni welcome will be Keisha Parker, a 2000 alumna and an attorney who majored in Black Studies. Keisha was one of our Forty Under 40 alumni honorees. She also was a panelist at our Women’s Leadership Summit. I am grateful to the faculty who will don academic regalia to participate in Convocation. I hope that others will consider watching the live stream.
Welcome to our New Colleagues
We welcome new members of our community and acknowledge those who have stepped into new leadership positions. We will introduce new academic and professional faculty individually on September 7 and new classified staff individually at a meeting in October. But we ask that all new employees stand now to be recognized. Please be seated.
I wish to introduce Ginger Jurecka Blake, who joined SUNY New Paltz as the Director of Training and Organizational Development in September 2017, coming to us from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In her role Ginger focuses on aligning the values of our community with the processes and practices that shape employment culture at New Paltz. She has become a great partner for individuals and teams at all levels of the organization.
Michael Brennan joined us in October 2017 as Director of Facilities Design and Construction. He came to us from Cal-Poly where he managed capital construction projects for the campus. Prior to that Michael was a Captain in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. He was deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Michael has a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Technology and is pursuing his MBA at New Paltz.
Two administrators moved into new leadership positions and have not been formally introduced.
Stella Turk was appointed College Registrar in January 2018. Previously, she served for ten years as Associate Dean in Liberal Arts and Sciences and as instructor and Chair of the Department of Communication Disorders. Stella has also served as Director of the Speech-Language and Hearing Center and held positions as coordinator of the Deaf Studies Program and coordinator of the Post Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Communication Disorders.
Julia Davis is Director of Finance and Chief Financial Officer, SUNY New Paltz Foundation since June 2018. For several years, she was senior staff accountant for development and alumni relations. Julia is a SUNY Geneseo alumna, with a B.S. in Accounting.
Finally, Mary Ritayik was appointed this spring as Interim Chief of University Police. She joined SUNY New Paltz in 2000 and after five years of patrol work was promoted to University Police Investigator. In 2013 she was promoted into the newly created role of Deputy Chief of Police.
Let me acknowledge directors of the SUNY New Paltz Foundation here today. These business leaders, alumni, and committed citizens support the College and our students by raising private funds, being significant donors themselves, and promoting us in the broader community. Thank you for being here, and for all that you do. We also have members of some of our campus advisory boards with us. I also want to acknowledge members of our College Council, appointed by the Governor to guide and advise the campus president and to act on certain key decisions.
I am continuing the tradition today of reinforcing who we are and what we value, to guide our work and move successfully into our future. We value:
- A personalized, residential campus environment where students, faculty, and staff learn together through close interaction.
- Rigorous academics that bring together intellectually capable students and exceptional faculty committed to students and their learning. Our faculty are also committed to research, scholarship, and creative accomplishment that supports and advances the mission of a top-tier regional public university.
- A commitment to build an open, diverse, inclusive, and equitable college community.
- A spirit of exploration, discovery, and artistry so critical for our graduates to excel in a rapidly changing society and economy.
- A commitment to educating each student as a unique and whole person.
- And, being an intellectual and cultural resource in the Hudson Valley and serving regional economic and educational needs.
These values provide guideposts for our success in a changing higher education world. I am grateful for your contributions that advance these values and make this such an outstanding institution.
The Road Ahead
With these values as our frame for understanding our place in the higher education landscape, I now turn to the 2017 book by economists Robert Archibald and David Feldman titled “The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges and Universities.” They begin their predictions with three hypothetical colleges and how one alum from each school experiences their alma mater when they return to campus 20 to 25 years after they graduated. The institutions they encounter are radically changed – each in a different way.
In the first scenario an alum returns to his state-supported regional university after 25 years. He learns that all courses taught by this institution are now online. The only person he sees on campus is an elderly man walking with a cane. State support was declining even during his time there. To cut costs, the university increased its reliance on online and adjunct instruction. Campus buildings fell into disrepair, and eventually all except those that supported online instruction were sold by the state to a large retirement home.
Another alum comes back to his residential college after 20 years. As he drives through campus, he feels immediately at home, finding the main quad unchanged. But he learns that when he graduated in 2017 there had been a drumbeat of information tying the economic returns of a college education to specific majors. Those were focused on STEM, business and economics.
Applications began to decline except in STEM fields. To sustain its economy, the college focused its growth in STEM and shrank the rest of its departments. The vibrant English and political science programs that this alum remembered so well are little more than shells, an outcome of the campus response to market pressures.
In the third scenario, the alum, a successful Buenos Aires businesswoman, visits her residential liberal arts college in the U.S. She is wondering if it would be a good fit for her teenage son. She finds many of the same disciplines and departments, and a lovely residential campus with the same rich set of student activities – exactly as she remembers. But then she sees the difference: the cost of tuition is shocking. Her American college friends affirm her conclusion: if you want your children to have a residential college education, you had to have saved a lot, have a high income, or be willing to incur huge debt. She concludes that the kind of education she had received is now reserved for a few.
The authors recognize that each of these hypothetical scenarios is a caricature. They result from extrapolating recent trends in higher education decades into the future. The authors are clear that complex economic events and other national and global forces will inescapably drive future changes. Also, unknown major events could be game changers – like the Morrill Act of 1862, the GI Bill of 1944, or the original Higher Education Act of 1965. But they also opine that “Purposive decisions on campus also deflect and alter the way institutions and the whole industry behave ... The future will be driven by choices made not only in Washington and state capitals, but also on campuses and in family kitchens."
What do we envision for a future SUNY New Paltz, and what decisions can, and must, we make NOW that will influence our trajectory leading up to 2040? What steps can we take to lower the risk that we become one of those caricature institutions or worse – cease to exist. I will give you a window into the future SUNY New Paltz that I envision today. I will do so by sharing points of pride that are a foundation for our future, and by describing our immediate priorities. Examples are: offering program breadth and diversity, reaching and supporting students in new ways, building a stronger, more inclusive culture that supports and welcomes all students and employees.
A 22-year Retrospective
To understand the future, it’s important for us to appreciate our past. So, today, we will also look back 22 years to demonstrate the change we’re capable of. Such knowledge may also highlight trends on which we must build or amplify. Or, it may tell us places where we’ve fallen behind or opportunities that we’ve missed.
First, I want to say that SUNY New Paltz in 1996 was a dramatically improved institution over previous years. That change was largely a result of strategic decisions and difficult actions taken by President Alice Chandler during her 16-year presidency. And the evolution since that time has been striking.
Here’s one marker of change – this is a partial list of programs we offer in 2017 that we did not in 1996. This is an admirable reflection of the imperative that our curriculum and our offerings must continue to evolve to meet student interests and fulfill societal needs. And we’ll probably need to continue that evolution at a pace faster than in the past 22 years. At the same time, we have sustained many important traditions and enduring educational and academic values. To illustrate, the percentage of students majoring in the social sciences and humanities has increased during this period. The percentage in the fine and performing arts has been at least stable. We do not resemble any of the hypothetical colleges where those disciplines have dwindled.
Enrollment and Student Mix
The three largest incoming classes in our institution’s history – first-year and transfer students together – have been the past three years, and that’s with NO relaxation of our admissions standards. That’s a clear indication that we are offering programs that students want, in an attractive environment. Well done, Admissions!
Our student mix is also markedly different. The percentage of students from historically underrepresented groups in our incoming first-year class has increased from 33% in 1996 to more than 45% this fall. The percentage of first-year students from the Hudson Valley has nearly doubled – reflecting growth in our profile and reputation in our own backyard.
Our undergraduate enrollment is 12% higher now than in 1996. But the real shift is to more full-time students and a drop in part-time undergraduates. That shift no doubt reflects a more active, vibrant continuing presence of students on our campus. We’re all aware of a significant decline in graduate enrollments – especially part-time - and are heartened that we’ve begun to see some reversal of those declines.
Retention and Graduation Rates
The success of our students has increased notably over this period. Our first-year retention rate grew from 75% to 87%, and for EOP students from 85% to 91%. Our graduation rates for EOP students are now higher than the overall national averages for all students. Our overall 4-year graduation rate in 1996 was 19%. Last year it was 62%. Our six-year graduation rate has grown from 53% in 1996 to 72% in 2017, and our preliminary assessment is that our latest graduation rate might run as high as 76%. Those are the most dramatic increases in graduation rates on any SUNY campus during that time frame. Such outcomes reflect that we attract well-prepared top students, they work hard, and our faculty and staff teach, support, and mentor them well. Department secretaries and other Classified staff in many student support offices play key roles in that success.
Our tuition has doubled in the past 22 years, from $3,400 annually for in-state students to $6,870 this year, much higher than the rate of inflation. During that time, many of our students and their families were battered by a recession that had dramatic and long-lasting impacts on their ability to afford college.
We are making headway – still with lots of room to grow – in diversifying our revenue streams, raising private funds for student support and to create a “margin of excellence” beyond what we can do with state funding and tuition. In 1996, our private fund-raising efforts generated $960,000. In 2017, that figure was just over $3 million and in 2018 was about $5.8 million.
Our Physical Transformation
Our campus physical environment has changed and improved dramatically. Alumni who have returned recently and prospective students and their families tell us so. Our facilities and grounds personnel deserve a great deal of credit for the way our campus is maintained and how it’s improved. We built two new academic buildings, three residence halls, an athletics and wellness center, and an art museum. … We’ve renovated space to support programs and initiatives. … We improved parking and pedestrian travel and safety … and added and improved wellness and recreational facilities. … We’ve wholesale renovated several existing academic and support buildings and three residence halls, overhauled dated electrical and high-temp, hot-water systems, and made smaller-scale improvements in numerous other residential, academic and support spaces. Yet, we remain seriously underbuilt for our size and program array. We will keep up the pressure for new capital funding.
So, dramatic change in the past few decades fueled our growing profile and reputation. We must expect to experience – indeed, to drive – further dramatic change if we are to thrive in the coming decades. How will we do it?
First, we will continue to be guided by the priorities and initiatives of our strategic plan, which remains an effective framework for our continuous improvement. Last year, we began a new structure that more fully integrated strategic planning and assessment. That work was guided by the newly minted Strategic Planning and Assessment Council and Associate Provost Laurel Garrick Duhaney. They will soon share a summary of their 2017-18 annual report, outlining last year’s accomplishments that advance the essential initiatives of the strategic plan. They will also describe their thinking that our strategic plan fits well within a broader organizing principle of sustainability. They were influenced by a general definition of sustainability drawn from the United Nations, which includes a goal of “Quality Education.” Certainly as we plan for our future, we must think about what will sustain us and our mission.
Financing our Mission
There is growing recognition that – even though SUNY tuition is low by national and Northeast standards – we risk pricing low- and modest-income families out of college. As a public institution, it is our mission to provide educational opportunity and upward mobility. Even as we continue to advocate for increased taxpayer support, there is every sign that significant funding increases are unlikely, given the pressing costs of health care for an aging population and state infrastructure needs. At the same time, recent polls show that most Americans think that higher education is heading in the wrong direction.
The sobering take-home is that we should not expect new state resources to support our pursuit of the short- and long-term visions for the university we want to be. Through lots of belt-tightening this past year, we were able to support our programs while dipping into our campus reserves only slightly. Our forecast for the coming year – like that of every other SUNY campus – presents much greater difficulties. This will be the financial context in which we will work for the foreseeable future, and it will test our dedication and creativity. Stay tuned for a forum in October where Vice President Halstead and I will outline this year’s campus budget and the difficult and substantial steps we must take to bring revenues and expenses into balance. We have done this twice before in the last decade, and I am confident that we can do so again, as we position ourselves for a successful future.
We will soon be soliciting membership for a Budget Advisory Committee that will report to Provost Arnold and Vice President Halstead. Our faculty governance consultant recommended this structure and the faculty approved it as part of our new governance structure. This group will advise the Cabinet on the budget and facilitate communication with the campus.
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
I will shift from a budget frame to the first of several human frames. By about 2040, white Americans will become a minority in the United States. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion remains a bedrock of our admissions policies and practices. That will be true no matter what happens at the federal level. We are proud that students of all backgrounds are admitted to SUNY New Paltz based not on quotas or special considerations but on assessment of their individual ability to thrive, succeed, and contribute to our learning community. Our support for diversity and inclusion includes not only race but gender, sexual orientation, national origin, ability, religious belief, and other dimensions of human difference.
Beyond admitting diverse students, we want to ensure they flourish here. Across the nation, there are notable achievement gaps in graduation rates by race, ethnicity, and financial status. At New Paltz, those gaps are miniscule. But we want to further erase such gaps so that all students succeed. The percentage of Latinx students in our incoming classes has grown dramatically. We are approaching eligibility for designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution. This year we will explore what this designation might mean for us and what benefits it might bring to our students. Another priority for the year will be supporting Black Studies in its rebuilding efforts. Continuing to succeed in educating students from a broad swath of our society will make us a leading contributor to the state’s educational needs in 2040.
Meeting Students Where They Are
As our student body continues to grow in diversity, and we become more aware of the differences among students, we must increasingly meet individual students where they are. That will mean tailoring educational programming and support to their specific needs. This challenge was identified by SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson as a priority for the entire SUNY system. It’s also one of Provost Arnold’s top academic priorities for the coming years. In part, this will mean developing new approaches to academic advising and support for student success. We will take part in a two-year national project to evaluate and improve our advising programs. We will continue to explore the use of tools like ALEKS, the Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces. The mathematics department used this tool last year to improve advising and placement in math courses. Many of you have begun using the early alert forms to help ensure that key offices intervene in a timely way to assist students in need or under distress.
Meeting students where they are also includes adapting more diverse modes and methods of course instruction. That includes more online, hybrid, and low residency programs that take our offerings to adult learners and others we are not currently reaching, as well as providing new opportunities for current students. I hope that our community will openly consider development of microcredentials as we discussed in the spring and as SUNY is advocating. Many of our competitor institutions are already offering more of these opportunities. We do not have years to catch up. I’m grateful to the faculty for agreeing to take this up quickly and provide their thoughts by end of fall semester. As we discuss such opportunities, I hope that we can keep the focus on bringing mission and market together. It is a losing proposition to debate mission versus market. Vibrant institutions in 2040 will do many things differently than in 2018 to meet the evolving educational needs of students and society.
Of course, we know that the success of our students is not only about their academics. Students, especially undergraduates, have a tough time succeeding academically and thriving personally if they don’t feel they belong. Technological and societal forces will continue to push people apart and create challenges to building and sustaining strong, inclusive communities. We can’t control the broader world, but we can work to become the community we want to be. We know by many measures and student feedback that SUNY New Paltz provides an exceptional living and learning community. This is key to our ability to attract and retain bright, engaged, and diverse students. At the same time, we know that some students do not feel they belong, and we have more work to do. You will hear more throughout the year about the extensive programming that Student Affairs units have developed around belongingness.
Faculty play a key role in fostering students’ sense of belonging. Some of you may have read Frank Bruni’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times, titled “How to Get the Most Out of College.” He stressed the great significance for students of building social capital and relationships. Bruni emphasized that perhaps the most important relationships for students to invest in are those with members of the faculty. The faculty play a key role in helping students, in his words, “develop a peer relationship with the institution rather than a consumer relationship with it.”
A sense of community and belonging is critical for our employees, too, and we must remain attentive in this realm as not everyone feels included and welcome here. Two years ago, we initiated a new organizational structure that draws human resources, diversity, and inclusion together. We are seeing many positive returns from this new structure. We receive affirmative feedback from across the College about the support and direction from the people who guide this work. Human Resources has expanded employee training. We are looking at ways to expand mandatory training on sexual harassment, consensual relations, Title IX, implicit bias for search committee members, free speech and its intersection with inclusivity, and other key topics. Our Faculty Development Center has been doing wonderful work to support these goals.
Diversifying our Workforce
Students in an increasingly diverse student body deserve more opportunities to see and work with people like themselves in the classroom and administrative offices. We must step up our game to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty, staff, and campus leadership. We also must expand our work in building departmental cultures that are supportive of diverse faculty and staff to help them belong and succeed. Several faculty of color chose to leave our campus to pursue other opportunities this spring and summer. We must think carefully about how we can support our faculty to promote retention. New diverse faculty can help with those cultural changes, but this must be a collective effort. Recruiting a diverse workforce must become a routine part of our focus, rather than thinking about recruiting diverse employees primarily through special programs. Human Resources, Diversity, and Inclusion is developing further guidelines to support search committees in this work. I will gently remind faculty of the primary role that you have in advancing these goals for faculty hires. You define positions and qualifications. You let applicants know what we value by indicating what they should highlight in cover letters. You recruit candidates into your pool, interview them, offer a final recommendation, and welcome new members into your department. Recruiting and retaining diverse employees is a community endeavor.
Free Speech and Inclusivity
The value we place on diversity and inclusion sometimes confronts another core value: freedom of expression, essential to academic life and a value that public universities are legally bound to support. These come in conflict when one person’s exercise of free speech diminishes the right of others to feel that they belong. The exercise of free speech about climate change, economic policy, or evolution does not have the same impact as an offensive expression or view that touches on the identity of a member of our community and disenfranchises or marginalizes them. The impacts of such speech are real. Our campus experienced such impacts fully and directly this summer. I must say I am proud of the individual and community responses in turning these into learning opportunities for us all.
As we have articulated in our free speech policies, hurtful, upsetting, or offensive speech, including hate speech, is still protected -- provided it does not cross the line into intimidation or threat. Our policies support “more speech” as an appropriate response to such expression. We do not support attacking the individual who has exercised their free speech but addressing the content of their speech and its impact on others. Our goal as an educational institution should be to advance learning and understanding. We need to work hard to manage these conflicts without infringing on free speech or setting the stage for future erosion of freedom of expression. We need to educate our students – and each other - about the very real complexities of these issues in preparing them for success in the greater world. We are planning specific educational programming to grow this awareness and model respectful dialogue, much as we did during the Hasbrouck Complex naming dialogue last year.
Hasbrouck Building Names Dialogue
One year ago, we launched a process to evaluate the names on five residence halls and a dining hall in the Hasbrouck Complex. These buildings were named for the original Huguenot patentees who were the first European settlers in New Paltz. Like other Europeans who settled in New York and other mid-Atlantic states, they enslaved Africans. The campus building names have been contentious on campus for many years, and official action to review them was long overdue. Taking on this task now coincided with increased national discourse and conflict about statues or building names that commemorate or memorialize slavery in America. This also comes at a time that our country continues to wrestle with racial inequities and injustices and the legacy of our history with slavery. Even as some persist in the belief that we live in a post-racial nation, we try to prepare our students to face what our country is today and what it will be in 2040 and beyond.
I charged the Diversity and Inclusion Council with leading the process to review these names and to develop a recommendation either to retain the names or to remove them and rename these buildings. Early in the process, I apprised SUNY leadership, members of our College Council, and leaders at Historic Huguenot Street of my intentions.
I am grateful for the excellent, thoughtful work of the Diversity and Inclusion Council in leading this process. They held multiple forums, educated the community about our history, and solicited broad input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members, Huguenot descendants, and Historic Huguenot Street leadership. They also studied how other colleges and universities have dealt with the legacy of slavery on their campuses. I am proud of our students and other community members who engaged this difficult topic respectfully and thoughtfully – a model for engaging challenging topics that I hope we can continue.
Diversity and Inclusion Council Recommends Changing
The report I received from the Diversity and Inclusion Council, which will be made public today, included the recommendation that the building names be removed and replaced. The Diversity and Inclusion Council reached this position while recognizing that there will never be unanimity of opinion on such a deeply-rooted and complex topic. That recommendation honors the strongest sentiment expressed by students during the process. The Diversity and Inclusion Council was particularly moved by the belief expressed frequently by students that no one should be asked to live, sleep, and eat in buildings honoring people who enslaved others. The current names make some students feel unwelcomed and not at home here, when a sense of belonging and connection is critical to healthy social development and academic success. The Diversity and Inclusion Council heard those expressions and took the position that names on such buildings demand different consideration than statues or other memorials.
Changing Building Names is the Right Decision
I am strongly and fully persuaded that changing the names is the right path for our campus at this time. I had entered this process with an open mind, and without a clear prediction of an outcome. I attended every forum, spoke with and heard from students, Huguenot descendants, community members, alumni and employees during the process. I spent considerable time this summer reviewing and reflecting on the Diversity and Inclusion Council report and recommendations. I discussed the report and my thoughts with other campus leaders, SUNY leadership, and leaders at Historic Huguenot Street. In the end, I was compelled by the Diversity and Inclusion Council insights and arguments.
My recommendation – and it is a recommendation - is consistent with the main theme of my speech today: making such a change now is consistent with our community values of fostering a diverse and inclusive learning environment, and that must include active anti-racist steps. Addressing this key imperative will better position us to be a leading contributor to fulfilling the state’s educational needs in 2040. Again, we cannot control the broader world, but we can work to become the community we want to be.
College Council Authority
As I shared when we began this process, naming buildings or changing building names is not within the authority of a SUNY campus president. That authority rests with the campus College Council and thereafter with the SUNY Board of Trustees. I have spoken with College Council members – including the President of the Student Association, who is a voting member - about our process, the recommendation of the Diversity and Inclusion Council, and my position that the names should be changed. Next, the College Council will review the Diversity and Inclusion Council report and deliberate upon my recommendation. To fulfill their important role and out of respect for their authority, the College Council deserves appropriate space and time for that process. While I know the community is eager for resolution, I ask that you continue to model the thoughtful approach to discussing this complicated issue that you demonstrated so well last year.
Don't Erase History
Beyond the recommendation to change these building names, there was a clear sense on the Diversity and Inclusion Council and among those who participated in our process that we not “erase history.” The Diversity and Inclusion Council wrote that we must work to “understand our past in all its rich diversity without simply replacing one history with another.” That includes recognizing and acknowledging the history and legacy of slavery, in particular Northern slavery, and the enslaved labor that was key to the economic success of European settlers and the region. That full history should include the Munsee people who were the area’s inhabitants at the time of European settlement, and their diaspora to the Midwest. It also includes honoring the many contributions of the Huguenot settlers and their generations of descendants. Examples of the latter include Abraham Hasbrouck, who – pro bono – represented Sojourner Truth (namesake of our campus library) in her successful 1828 legal action to regain custody of her son, who had been sold into slavery in the South. Huguenot descendants fought in the Civil War, heavily on the Union side. They played a key role in securing Normal School status for the New Paltz Academy after it burned down in 1884. After another fire destroyed the school in 1906, they were instrumental in fighting off significant public and legislative pressure to relocate the Normal School to Kingston rather than rebuild here. It’s no stretch to say that SUNY New Paltz would not exist without their efforts.
A Contemplative Space to Highlight History
One way the Diversity and Inclusion Council thought we might accomplish that educational goal would be to develop a contemplative space on the campus – along with related educational programming and material. This would be a place where future students and visitors can gather to reflect on and discuss our history. Such a space might incorporate the bronze plaques that have been displayed on College-Shango Hall to acknowledge and recognize the role of the original patentee families and their descendants in shaping the College and the New Paltz community. This space might also include a marker or memorial honoring the indigenous Munsee people from whom the Huguenot settlers acquired the land on which the campus and community now reside, and an appropriate commemoration of enslaved people who helped build this community, and an acknowledgment of the legacy of slavery.
Remembering our Past to Protect our Future
As I have reflected on this process, I have thought often about Sankofa, a word and concept from the Akan tribe in Ghana. This translates as “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten” or, “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Sankofa is often depicted as a bird with its feet facing forward while it turns its head backwards to fetch a valuable egg that is at risk of being left behind.
There is a symbol of Sankofa on a headstone in the French Church cemetery on Historic Huguenot Street. Historic Huguenot Street leadership erected it there during a 2013 ceremony to inter the remains of an African American, the first burial in that cemetery since the Civil War and the first-ever of a non-European. This action was part of Historic Huguenot Street’s recent efforts to share an inclusive narrative about the history of our community, including an honest and open treatment of the impact of European settlement on the indigenous Munsee, slavery as part of the Huguenot legacy, and the role of slavery in shaping contemporary views of race in America.
Sankofa has a clear linkage to our building names discussion. African-American and African diaspora scholars interpret Sankofa to represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future or remembering our past to protect our future. This idea embodies the spirit of the Diversity and Inclusion Council’s views about not erasing history but rather committing to continuously discussing and engaging the complexity of human experience and the stories that become part of our history. My sincerest hope is that, with your support, our Hasbrouck Complex naming process will set the stage in the coming decades for open dialogue and greater understanding about race and historical legacy.
To summarize, I have spoken this morning about some – by no means all - of the priorities that we need to focus on now, to increase our success as the kind of institution that I believe we want to become. These themes have included academic programming and student support, creating an inclusive culture and stronger sense of belonging, better supporting people, thriving in an era of constrained resources, and the value of symbolism in names on buildings.
I want to be sure that in talking about a 22-year horizon, I have left no one with the illusion that we have lots of time to make key decisions. We must scan the higher education, political, and social environment now and respond now to signals that our environment is changing.
Through the Looking-Glass
To drive home that point, I will close with a reference to Lewis Carroll’s depiction of Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice had been running hard and is exhausted and frustrated. The Red Queen lounges nearby, with amusement.
Alice comments that they’ve been under this tree, running, for the whole time, and everything is just as it was. “Of course, it is,” said the Queen, “what would you have it?”
Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast…”
Adaptation and Evolution
In the early 1970s, The Red Queen hypothesis was developed from this literary reference by University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen. He argued that organisms must constantly adapt and evolve to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in a constantly changing environment. There’s a clear extension from the biological world to that of higher education. The financial, demographic, and political environments in which we operate are not unique to SUNY New Paltz; other colleges and universities also are evolving to survive the same challenges. We must develop an appetite and stamina for action. This metaphor parallels my use last year of the canoeing analogy – to stay afloat in fast-moving water, we must paddle as fast as or faster than the forces of the water moving us along. And, we must do it together, as a community. I’m not suggesting that we simply pile more and more work on top of what we already are doing. Instead, we must think and act with nimbleness and some sense of urgency as we move into the future.
A Promising Year Ahead
I have full confidence in this community to meet the challenges ahead, in the coming year and into 2040. You will hear more about the themes I’ve touched on today as they will be a core part of our communication, our decision-making and our actions this year and beyond. Take heart in the knowledge that we approach these challenges with a set of strengths and recent achievements that few other institutions enjoy. We can do this – together.
Thank you and have a great year!