The Office of the President

State of the College 2012

State of the College 2012  

August 24, 2012

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Good morning, and welcome.  Today we meet to continue a well-established tradition of starting the new academic year by gathering to review where we have been and forecast where we are going.  At the same time, we launch a new tradition, by meeting as the single community of faculty, staff, and administrators that we are.  This is one step, symbolic and real, toward leaving our separate silos to build a stronger community and sense of shared mission.  We also take a step to greater efficiency; we gain a jump on the year’s agenda by laying out a framework and context for the year before classes begin rather than waiting until the first faculty meeting, several weeks after classes have started.     

By rescheduling the State of the College as we have, it now lands on the same day as Freshman Convocation, another ritual that evokes new beginnings.  At this year’s convocation, at noon today, you will see the start of a new Grand Marshal tradition.  Nancy Nielsen, who has represented the College well in this capacity for the past five years, graciously offered to relinquish this role to others.  The next senior-most faculty member, Distinguished Professor of Political Science Gerald Benjamin, will carry the mace today and at next May’s commencement.   We will change the mace bearer annually, creating opportunity to recognize more of the many faculty who serve this institution with distinction. 

President Donald P. Christian addresses the college community

An important message I want you to take away from today’s address is gratitude. You each work with dedication and care to make New Paltz a learning environment to be proud of, and an institution I feel privileged to serve as President.  Despite budget cuts and hurricanes and sometimes feeling like I was doing several jobs at once these past two years, I am glad to be in this leadership role, at this institution, and that is primarily because of the caliber and character of the people who are this College.

Recently, a father wrote to me to praise his daughter’s experience here.  He named a staff member who had been “unselfishly helpful.”   I sent a thank you note to this staff member, who wrote back, “We don’t get many thank you’s in this profession.”  There are hundreds of examples of such dedicated service for which you get no thanks.  Know how much I appreciate all that you do, and what a difference each of you makes through your work. 

I want to welcome all new members of our community, and ask you to please stand and be recognized.  You’ve joined a wonderful institution, and we look forward to your contributions and to supporting your professional growth.  New academic and professional faculty will be introduced individually at the first faculty meeting on September 14.  I will join Classified staff at a meeting in September, where we will introduce new staff, recognize promotions, and talk in more detail about several topics I can touch on only briefly today.

Let me now introduce new administrators, beginning with Philip Mauceri, the new Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.  Michael Rosenberg is the new Dean of the School of Education.  Mark Colvson is the new Dean of the Sojourner Truth Library.  Tanhena Pacheco Dunn is our new Executive Director for Compliance and Campus Climate.  She will coordinate our response to sexual harassment and sexual violence, and many of you will have an opportunity to work with her through our searches, diversity efforts, and other initiatives.

David Ferguson is our new Interim Director of Development, assisting with fund-raising and development operations while we conduct a national search to replace Sally Cross.  David will join us in early September.    

I hope that you will introduce yourselves to our new colleagues, welcome them, and assist them in their transition to New Paltz, helping them to learn about the specialness of New Paltz and its challenges and strengths.

At the start of a new year, we revisit and reinforce who we are, what we value, and what we want to be – as a compass for our daily work and to familiarize our new community members with our mission.  These values align with the central elements of our vision that have served us well.  These will be a primary framework and starting point for the strategic planning we will undertake this year, along with acting upon our Middle States recommendations and the priorities I described in my inaugural address last spring.

These values include:

  • A personalized, residential college experience, where students, faculty, and staff learn together through close interaction. 
  • A high standard of rigor and academic expectation made possible by exceptional faculty who are committed to students and their learning, AND to conducting high-quality scholarship that informs their teaching, provides learning opportunities for students, and contributes to long-term intellectual vitality of the faculty.
  • Recruiting and serving intellectually capable and committed students who are able to rise to the challenges we provide.
  • A commitment to sustaining an open, diverse, and equitable college community.
  • Fostering a spirit of exploration, discovery, and artistry that prepares students to excel in a rapidly changing society and economy.
  • A commitment to educating each student as a whole person.
  • Being an intellectual and cultural hub in the Hudson Valley and serving regional economic and educational needs.

Students and their learning are the common thread in these values.  We must continue to sharpen our focus on students, their experience, their learning, and their success.

In last year’s State of the College address, I used Hurricane Irene’s floodwaters as a metaphor.  I am again drawn to the water metaphor.  Some of you know that I am an ecologist, and that my early research dealt with the ecology and physiology of desert animals.  In the mid-1970s I studied in the Namib Desert of southern Africa, in an area that averages 2-3 inches of rainfall per year.  My first year there brought an exceptional 7 inches of rainfall, ending a long drought.  My rancher neighbors called this the first normal year they had had in 40 years!

The past two years at New Paltz have been anything but normal, and we’re all looking forward to better times.  We worked through a major budget reduction two years ago, lost faculty and staff positions through retirement and resignation, experienced a presidential transition and interim leadership in other key positions, endured a hurricane, a tropical storm, a freak snowstorm, a campus power outage, deficit reduction plans, and last year completed five major administrative searches. I know that your patience and good will were tested by this upheaval, and I appreciate your steadfast commitment to our students, the College, and our mission.

One of the lessons that desert ecologists learn is the renewal that comes to the desert after rainfall, and it feels like we too have ended a long drought.  I will talk shortly about our renewal.  As I think about our future, two other lessons come to mind.  Because rainfall and water – which are essential to life – are extremely unpredictable in the desert, uncertainty is central in the thinking of desert ecologists.  I think about many of the challenges that we face as sources of uncertainty, because no one knows the scope of pending changes in our world, and because the decisions that we make or fail to make now will have important bearing on our future.    

A final relevant lesson is that even in good times, desert plants and animals shepherd critical resources carefully.  I would love to talk about how the oryx, the dromedary camel, and the saguaro cactus conserve water.  Instead, I will touch on how we must shepherd our most critical resources. 

Like the renewed life in the desert following a drought, we are in tremendous shape – our undergraduate enrollments are on target, our incoming class is bright, diverse, and shows every promise of being extremely engaged.  Our teaching, learning, scholarship, and creative work are sources of great pride, and our service to the region continues to grow.  Our budgets and budget planning are sound, our retention and graduation rates are high and increasing.  Indeed, preliminary figures indicate that our most recent 6-year graduation rate is now nearly 73%, up from about 70% last year and up from 67% in 2010.  

Our campus buildings and grounds are more beautiful, well-maintained, and functional each year.  Our campus safety record is strong, and students and visitors are well served by our staff.  Our reputation continues to shine, and we are recruiting the new employees we need to thrive. These accomplishments are worth celebrating, and we are in a great position to continue our upward trajectory. 

Unlike many of our peers around the country, our faculty ranks are being renewed and expanded.  Twenty new tenure-track faculty hired since last fall will enrich our programs, with one other search in progress and searches wrapping up for two librarians.  This fall’s teaching faculty will also include more than 20 new full-time lecturers.        
Our decisions last spring to allocate increased tuition revenue will bring us 17 new tenure-track lines, 13 new full-time lecturers, and more than 11 academic support positions in fall 2013.  These new colleagues, along with stability in key leadership roles, should make this year and next feel very different than the last two.  I am aware that the mix of lecturers in our hiring strategies has gained attention, and I will comment on this in my September report to the faculty.

Our increased tuition revenue comes with the imperative – from the legislature, the governor, the Chancellor, and the Board of Trustees - that we use those resources to support instruction, student learning, success, and access.  Shepherding our resources for those priorities was the guiding principle for our budget allocation decisions last spring.  This must remain the focus of our actions and decisions as we build a strategic plan and advance our institution.

While we celebrate this renewal, it is prudent to think about future challenges.  The cost and quality of higher education remain major public policy issues.  The near-term economic future is volatile and uncertain, with implications for state and federal taxpayer support for public higher education.  Many of our students and their families live with challenging finances.  Student loan debt is national news.  Through tuition and fees, our students and their families bear an ever-increasing proportion of the cost to run this College.  Our core instructional budget is split between state taxpayer support and tuition.  In 2001-02, 55% of that budget came from tuition, last year it was 72%, and this year it will be more than 74%.  Furthermore, students and their families pay the full cost of room and board, in addition to tuition and fees. The financial stresses that our students and their families experience must factor into our decisions.    

SUNY system receives funding from the state, and allocates it to campuses.  SUNY system will enact a new formula to allocate that funding this year.   This plan, which will be announced next month, will include performance-based funding; we do not know whether our core instructional budget will increase, decline, or be relatively unaffected. 

Alternative educational models mean more competition that we ignore at our peril – primary examples are massive open online courses and institutions offering academic credit for experience.  Public trust in higher education is slipping and expectations for accountability are growing.  This casts a new light on these alternative models. 

We face intensified competition for students.  Numbers of high school graduates in New York are declining – precipitously in some parts of the state, less dramatically but downward nonetheless in our primary recruitment areas of Long Island and the Hudson Valley, certainly steadily downward for the state as a whole.  Other SUNY campuses are increasing their recruitment efforts in our historical turf, like Long Island and New York City.  SUNY community colleges are building residence halls, and some are very clear that they are going after students statewide, well beyond their traditional service areas. 

The two primary destinations for students we accept but who go elsewhere are Binghamton University and the University at Albany.  It has not escaped our attention that Binghamton explicitly plans to grow its undergraduate enrollment by 2,000 students. These institutions are major competitors for our students

We compete with private colleges as well, especially for the best students.  Last spring, I attended an event honoring the valedictorians and salutatorians from every school district in Ulster County.  It was sobering to learn how many of those students were planning to attend private colleges and that only one is coming to New Paltz.  Some of the best students at local community colleges transfer to private colleges.  We must continue to combat the mystique that a private college education is better than anything New Paltz can provide.  

The next few years will see increased scramble among colleges and universities to recruit the right number of students to sustain programs and remain financially viable.  We have every intention of continuing to be successful at recruiting diverse students from parts of the state that we have traditionally served, and of not losing out in this competition.    

We have been very successful both at meeting numerical enrollment targets and at enrolling bright and engaged students.  In 2000, about 16% of our first-year students were from the highest selectivity group that SUNY uses to assess student academic preparation.  More than one-third were from group 3.  Since 2009, more than 40% of our incoming first-year students are from that top selectivity group, and none from group 3.  

The quality of our students matters very much to our future, and competition for the best and brightest will intensify as the number of high school graduates declines.  Top students are discerning about educational quality and offerings.  They expect a high level of intellectual engagement, learning opportunity in and beyond the classroom, and thoughtful advising and mentoring.  Interestingly, our decliner surveys show that perceived academic quality is the reason most often cited by accepted students who go to other institutions.  We must continue raising the bar on our educational quality to keep attracting top students and serving them well, and especially to increase the selectivity above that of the past four years.  

A bit of institutional self-scrutiny is in order.  Our survey of last spring’s graduating seniors showed that 85% would either definitely or probably choose to attend New Paltz if they could start over again, and 85% rated their entire educational experience as excellent or good. Such perceptions by our most recent graduates are certainly marks of success that we should be proud of, and they indicate that we are doing many things right.  But only 48% of those seniors would definitely choose New Paltz again, and only 37% rated their entire educational experience as excellent.  In an era of intensifying competition for the best students and in the spirit of being the best we can be, should we be comfortable with these relatively modest rankings?  I don’t think so. 

We must recognize and respond to such challenges.  Our goal for this and the next several years must be not merely to muddle through, but to position New Paltz to continue thriving and growing in quality, reputation, and contribution.  We will do that by focusing increasingly on our students, their experience, and their learning. That is the surest path to carving out a distinctive niche that positions us to go toe-to-toe with our major competitors.

Our admissions staff and administrators continually assess and improve how we recruit students.  We rely on faculty and staff to showcase for prospective students and their parents the great learning opportunities we provide. Every year, I hear from students and their parents that a personal experience with a faculty member or department sealed their decision to choose New Paltz.  I am grateful for such contributions to our recruitment success.

Simply working harder at recruiting students or being more clever than other colleges at doing so will not secure our future. 

Our own data and an external review from last year indicate that our course scheduling does not serve students well.  A new schedule will help us provide students the courses they need, when they need them – very likely without a wholesale increase to a 4/3 or 4/4 teaching load for tenure-track faculty.

Let’s consider the percentage of our 3-credit courses that meet 3 times weekly. At other SUNY comprehensives, that is 27-42%, but at New Paltz it’s only 3%. Look at the frequency of lower division courses that meet three times per week.  At our SUNY sister campuses, this represents one quarter to one half of the courses, but only 5% at New Paltz.  We offer courses very differently from our peers.  It is difficult to envision how we can sustain this, and we should think also about its effects on academic quality.

Let’s remember that our discussions about increasing teaching loads grew out of two major budget cuts in a recent three-year period.  Our new tuition increases do not offset those cuts, so we still face an imperative for change.  However, our end game is to serve students, not to increase faculty teaching loads.  New tuition revenue and new faculty hires have changed this picture, so that changing our course schedule may be a feasible – and certainly more desirable – approach to meeting course availability needs than increasing teaching loads.

While we must continue to evaluate and address inequities in teaching loads within and among units, course scheduling should occupy more of our attention during the coming year.  This fall, Provost Mauceri and Vice President Eaton will lead discussions with faculty about this, with the goal of having new class scheduling formats and guidelines ready for spring 2014.

We also will begin planning a new general education program, building on the liberal education principles that the faculty approved so soundly last spring.  I ask the faculty to think boldly about a vibrant GE program, consistent with our belief in a strong liberal education as essential preparation for all citizens in a knowledge-driven society and economy. Doing so will both give our students the educational foundation they need and be a powerful centerpiece for recruiting bright students. 

This past year, we invested new tuition revenue in expanding our research programs for students.  These are remarkable learning experiences that build on the research, scholarly, and creative capacities of our faculty, and I want to expand them further.  I mentioned earlier the Binghamton University plan to recruit more students.  That plan includes hiring 150 new faculty – with one of the highlighted benefits being research experiences for more than 400 undergraduate students.  Even though we do not have – nor should we have – the research emphasis of a University Center – it is noteworthy that Binghamton includes undergraduate research in its research mission.  Institutions with which we compete are paying careful attention to the value of student research, and we should as well.

The honors program has been working closely with admissions to attract the best and brightest students to New Paltz, and we hear from many incoming students that the vibrancy of our honors program was a major draw in their decision to come here.  I appreciate the work that departments are undertaking to embrace and support the work of the honors program. 

We must expand and diversify our student research, honors, internships, living-learning communities, and similar rich learning experiences.

The School of Science and Engineering is proposing a mechanical engineering program.  I strongly support this effort, which will make our overall profile in science and technology more attractive and prominent, better position us to meet regional workforce needs, and provide an additional axis for innovative programming at the interface of the arts and technology.

We are continuing efforts to rejuvenate our graduate programs and reverse steep declines in graduate enrollment by thoughtful planning, expanded marketing, and diversifying how we provide graduate instruction.   

I have framed these directions primarily in the context of responding to external challenges so that we continue to thrive in an uncertain environment.  But these directions let us embrace, preserve, and build on our traditional strengths.  These include cutting edge academic offerings rooted in a strong liberal education, support for liberal arts and professional educational programs, deep intellectual engagement between students and faculty or staff, a central role for faculty research and scholarship, an emphasis on students and their success, and the value of a residential living-learning environment. 

Provost Mauceri, even as he is learning the campus and establishing his priorities, will begin a process of evaluating and improving the support that we provide for faculty and staff development, including in pedagogy, teaching, and learning.  The Provost will also begin conversations to clarify expectations for reappointment, promotion, and tenure, and to develop better ways for us to communicate those criteria. As part of our ongoing effort to create a diverse workforce and equitable and inclusive campus, we will review and revise how we recruit employees.    

Records and Registration will support our development of a new course schedule, and is out front with a SUNY system-wide conversion to new student degree audit software – Degree Works.  Other offices have been working hard to bring us on line with a new statewide financial accounting system.

We’ve heard from people outside the College that New Paltz is a “best-kept secret.”   It is important not just that we be good, but that the rest of the world knows this.   That includes prospective students and their parents, donors and future donors, alumni, and the region.  You have seen that we recently launched a revised website, and we are developing new marketing approaches, including better use of social media.   

Our campus gets more beautiful and functional every day.  We are expanding and improving our academic infrastructure and advancing the goals of our long-term master plan to create a safer, pedestrian-friendly campus, with parking moving to the periphery.  I thank everyone who has accommodated these disruptions to date, and express in advance my appreciation for your patience and your flexibility in adapting new habits as we navigate the balance between running the College of today and building the College of tomorrow. 

We are completing the Mohonk Walk, landscaping at Hasbrouck Quad, renovating Wooster and the Library, constructing additional parking, and later in the year breaking ground for a new science building.  Our future as a residential campus is constrained by limited student housing, even though we do not plan to increase undergraduate enrollment.  We continue our efforts to gain state approval for a new residence hall that will diversify housing options.  We also are supporting the Park Point project, a partnership between the New Paltz Foundation and a private developer that will provide apartment-style housing for students and housing for new faculty/staff. This project is critical to our future as a residential campus, and we believe will benefit the broader community by adding water and sewage treatment capacity, reducing traffic, easing rental housing congestion, and supporting local merchants.

The strategic planning process we will undertake this year will identify 6 to 8 institutional-level projects or initiatives that will receive special focus during the next 3 to 5 years. I will write to you soon to provide more detail.  We will consider a wide range of our opportunities and needs, building on our longstanding vision points, on recommendations and issues identified in our recent Middle States re-accreditation, and on themes that I’ve talked about today.  The plan that will come to me for approval in the spring will result from a process guided by a 13-15 member steering committee and an outside consultant.  There will be abundant opportunity for consultation, input, and participation. 

We will repeat, and refine, the budget process we used last year to guide our resource-allocation decisions in the coming years.  We will start earlier than last year, with the ultimate goal of linking our budget process to strategic planning.  This will help us more effectively blend financial questions with academic, student life, capital, and other priorities.  Finances remain a fundamental context for our work but are not the only bottom line that matters. 

Increasing our fund-raising success to support the College and our students is arguably the most important thing that I will do as President.  Last year, we received several major gifts, and the dollar amount raised in our annual giving fund was the highest in several years – both good signs.  At the same time, we conducted a feasibility study to assess our capacity for a major fund-raising campaign.  It was sobering but not surprising to learn that before we are ready to undertake a major campaign we have much hard work to do in cultivating alumni and other donors, in telling our story to the broader community, and in improving the way we do this work.  We will focus on these priorities for the next year and a half to two years.  I will be directing more of my time to creating and sustaining relationships, near and away from campus.   

The new leader we will hire for our development and alumni relations will be a vice president, rather than a director.  This is not the first time in our history that this position has been at the vice presidential level.  Making this a Cabinet-level position reflects the increasing importance of private fund-raising and alumni development in our future revenue base.        

I will close with thoughts about how we face the mix of challenges and opportunities that I have spoken about today.  Last month, at a New Presidents Seminar at Harvard University, Harvard President Drew Faust said to us “higher education is at an unprecedented inflection point,” facing issues of demography, economy, globalization, disruptive technology, and other forces – such as those I have spoken about today.  She challenged us to help our communities understand these forces and the imperative for change, and “that our responses to these challenges will be disruptive to our current ways of doing things.” 

President Faust’s words brought to mind the distinctions between technical problems and adaptive problems drawn by Harvard researcher Ron Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers.  Some problems like having your car repaired or taking penicillin to cure pneumonia are technical problems with technical solutions.  We turn to an expert to fix things like these.  Adaptive problems, on the other hand, are more complex and less tractable, and not readily amenable to technical solutions provided by an expert.  Heifetz wrote that adaptive problems require people in a community to change their values, their behavior, or their attitudes.  

Most of the challenges that we face – and certainly the major ones - are adaptive problems, not technical ones.  They don’t have technical answers, and no one individual among us, not me, not the Provost or any other member of the Cabinet, or any one of you has the expertise to fix them.  Overcoming these challenges will require us coming together as a community to devise solutions and new ways of doing our work. This is how we will continue our renewal, navigate periods of uncertainty, and prudently apply critical resources.  This charge bridges all of the units and areas of responsibility that you represent here today.

That is the spirit that I hope we can all bring to the work that we as a community will undertake.  This includes our ongoing academic work; running the complex business of a college more effectively; building an inclusive and respectful environment; recruiting and retaining the best colleagues and students; revising general education, developing a strategic plan, living with the change brought by campus improvements, or nurturing and assisting our newest colleagues.

Our shared mission of educating the next generations of citizens is noble and exciting.  Our students and their learning deserve our best collective care and attention.  I look forward to a rewarding year of working with all of you, to serve current students and to make New Paltz an even better institution for the future.

Thank you, and have a great year.